Five Questions to Help You Delegate More Effectively

Overworked and overwhelmed leaders are constantly told to “delegate some things down” or to “take some stuff off your plate”. While that recommendation is a good idea in theory, it rarely happens. Is it because leaders are control freaks who can’t let go? Perhaps we’re too power-hungry to let other people take ownership over important tasks? Maybe we don’t trust anyone else to do the work and do it to our expectation level?

All these things might be true, however I believe it’s because delegating isn’t actually that easy. The adage of, “just delegate some things down,” is often misguided. The truth is, that delegation is hard work. It takes time, intention, and commitment to achieve successful delegation. For many professionals, no one has ever taught us how to delegate effectively. Below you will find five questions to ask yourself (and answer) to help you delegate more effectively.

1. Should I Delegate This Task/Project/Responsibility?

To answer this question, I recommend using the Eisenhower Matrix. The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple and effective decision-making tool that can be used to identify and prioritize tasks for immediate action, long-term attention, delegation, or elimination. When stuff sits on our to-do lists for too long, they have the ability to increase our stress and anxiety, especially as we creep closer to any related deadlines. Where there are tasks, projects, or responsibilities that fall in the “not important” classifications, that’s a good sign we should probably delegate them down to someone else. Sometimes, we get ourselves into delegation trouble when we are confronted with items that are both urgent and important – yet we don’t have time to get them done. When we’re faced with an issue like this, we can be inclined to pass it off on someone else who might have the time to attend to the urgent and important task. What inevitably occurs, however, is that the person we passed the task off to, doesn’t have the experience, information, or authority to actually complete the task without our help or time – making the attempt to delegate moot.

These are situations when we should examine our to-do list and determine items that can be delayed, that are not as urgent. However, delaying these activities doesn’t mean we should ignore these tasks/projects/responsibilities until they become an urgent need. Instead, schedule time for these items on your calendar in the future, to ensure they receive attention before they’re urgent.

If you’re still mostly reactive, responding to the most urgent needs at every moment, and rarely have time to be strategic or focus on important tasks that aren’t necessarily urgent, then it’s time to consider delegating. Take a look at how productive your workday is and what is creating a constant state of urgency. Evaluate all of your tasks, projects, and responsibilities and classify them within the Eisenhower Matrix. If at that point, you determine you have some things you can or should delegate, proceed to the next four questions!

2. What’s the lowest level I can delegate this task/project/responsibility down to?

You have to think about yourself, your team, and everyone you work with in a “per hour” capacity. How much of the company resources are being expended for one hour of your time versus a more junior member of your team? Being a good steward of company resources means exploring the lowest level of personnel you can delegate the tasks, projects, or responsibilities down to. This frees you up to do task where you are the lowest level a task can be delegated to, as well. That requires us to consider the tasks, projects, and responsibilities that are consuming our time, then determining if there is someone who is more junior that can take on those responsibilities. However, it is necessary to reflect on who can, as well as if they have the appropriate level of authority to complete the task without intervention from a more senior member.

Here’s an example: Perhaps you’re thinking of delegating management of an internal project to a more junior member of your team. This junior team member has been part of the project team, but has never taken the lead. You make the hand-off and share with your colleagues and the project team that the junior member is now going to take the lead. As you slowly peel back your involvement in the meetings, you find you’re still getting emails and questions related to some decisions on the project, questions are directed toward you in group emails, and the new lead team member is struggling with controlling the project team.

This is an example of the junior team member who does not have enough (perceived) authority to takeover a responsibility for you. Perhaps they don’t have enough confidence to take the lead or maybe there’s strong personalities or  senior team members on the project that don’t take the junior member seriously. If the project continues to require you to insert yourself or stand up for the junior team member, it may be an indication that the responsibility was passed too far down the hierarchy. At this point, taking responsibility back from the individual would look worse than hand-holding the junior member a bit longer.

When evaluating who you can delegate a task, project, or responsibility down to, make sure you do your due diligence. Ask yourself if the task/project/responsibility can effectively be delegated down and if the person has the authority to manage it effectively, before you take action, otherwise you’ll both end up doing extra work.

3. What are the knowledge and skills necessary for someone to complete this task/project/responsibility?

The biggest part of delegating successfully is making sure the person that is being delegated to has all of the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully achieve that task. That means, if there is not a manual, process, or policy that exists related to it, you will need to create one or work with the individual to offload the information and/or teach the skills. Here are some key questions to answer when preparing to delegate knowledge and skills:

      • What is the desired outcome(s)?
      • Is there a specific process, system, or software that should be used to achieve the outcomes? Are there documented steps related to a process or system?
      • Are there specific skills needed to achieve the outcome? Where/how does one gain the necessary skills?
      • What individuals need to be engaged or informed of the change in ownership?
      • What relationships are critical to achieving the outcomes?
      • What are the foreseeable constraints, boundaries, or potential roadblocks there might be to achieving the outcome(s)?
      • Are there special supplies or materials needed?
      • What are the deadlines or timelines related to the outcome?
      • Does this task recur? If so, how often? When? Who is involved each time it recurs?

These questions are critical to fully delegating tasks, projects, and responsibilities down to another individual. The motto should always be, “The more information, the better“. Don’t discount the little things when making the transition, sometimes those minor details make a big difference in the new leader gaining trust and credibility.

If you’re reading those questions again, you’re realizing that offloading all of that information can’t always be done quickly or in a single meeting. Make sure you schedule multiple conversations to ensure you cover everything necessary. The goal isn’t just to get the task/project/responsibility off your plate; the goal is also to ensure the outcome(s) are still achieved and the individual can successfully ensure that happens.

4. How long will it take to delegate?

The biggest misnomer related to delegation is that it’s quick. By now, you’re probably realizing that it’s not quick at all. In fact, delegating can take months and if the responsibilities are a part of succession planning, it could take years. When you’re planning to delegate a task/project/responsibility, you should consider and make clear when you will be available to answer questions. If the answer is, “any time,” you’re missing the point here. Delegating isn’t only about freeing you up for more urgent or important tasks, it’s also about helping your day-to-day be more productive. That also means limiting the constant barrage of an “open-door” management philosophy where you’re constantly interrupted by people and their priorities. Set some clear check-points along the transition where you will be available to answer any questions they have. Additionally, set some times to review their work, observe, or collect feedback from others involved. Be clear about what you need from the other person at each check-in and set the agenda in advance so you can work efficiently when you do take the time to meet. Finally, set milestones, whether by date or outcomes, of when the task, project, or responsibility will be fully transitioned and the new leader should be prepared to function without oversight.

5. Should I say, “yes,” to this new task/project/responsibility?

Finally, it’s time to build better skills related to taking on additional work or responsibilities. You’ve just taken the time to delegate something effectively so you have more time and bandwidth to devote to other urgent and important needs. That doesn’t mean that you say yes to the next request that comes into your email. It’s easy to fight the urge to fill empty space on your calendar with something new. The glorification of “busy” is strong in corporate culture. Before you say yes to taking on any new tasks, projects, or responsibilities, stop and take a moment to reflect. Go back to your Eisenhower Matrix. Fill in each square again, then sit back and really reflect. Are there tasks that are important, but not urgent, that just keep getting pushed off because you don’t have time? Are there additional tasks/projects/responsibilities you can also delegate to make more time for this new request? What, of your current workload, will suffer or get delayed if you say yes to this new request? What will you lose (or lose out on) if you say “no” to this request? What will you gain if you say “no” to this new request? We often think about saying “no” as a loss. I challenge you to consider it a gain. Take the time to be intentional as you make decisions to delegate or take on new tasks.

Sometimes we don’t always have the luxury or ability to say “no” when a senior member is delegating something to us. However you can use it as an opportunity to re-evaluate your workload and start a conversation about your current responsibilities. Start with, “I am happy to take on this request, however prioritizing this will require me to offload something else from my current workload. Would you help me identify what might be the right thing to delegate?”

Use these questions anytime you are being delegated to, as well. These questions can ensure that you are set up for success when you’re taking on a new task, project, or responsbilities. You can master delegation regardless if you’re delegating or being delegated to!

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