How to Delegate Effectively
When your plate is way too full, sharing the load is the secret to sanity. But delegating requires a leap of faith—and some serious people skills. Here, successful women reveal how to inspire your colleagues to want to take on your to-dos.
Determine What to Delegate
Zero in on tasks that help your career. First, take 15 minutes to write an exhaustive to-do list. “This allows you to clear your mind and shift your focus to action,” says Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. Assess each task against the bigger picture: Which will truly drive the success of a project or help you secure a promotion? “Switch your outlook from ‘What needs to happen today?’ to ‘What am I trying to achieve?’” advises Dufu.
Schedule your time. There are only 24 hours in a day—and you need to sleep. Seeing your full to-do list will make you think, “When am I actually going to do all this?” says Mary Jane Nirdlinger, assistant town manager of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Answer that question by using your calendar to plan and schedule your tasks—factoring in time for brain prep, eating, and checking email—just as you would a meeting, she says. Pad those time blocks, too. “We tend to underestimate how long it takes to get things done,” says Dufu. You’ll quickly realize you can fit in only so much. “And if something is still a priority, you’ll have to find someone else to do it,” says Nirdlinger.
Prioritize tasks that only you can do. These aren’t things you can necessarily do better; they’re things that only you have the skills, network, or political savvy to handle, says Dufu. “You might be the only one who can give the speech, but you can ask for help with preparing your presentation slides,” she says. Keep whatever requires your distinct point of view. “I would never delegate anything that demands true authenticity, like my voice in my writing or control over my menu,” says Vivian Howard, a chef in Kinston, North Carolina, and the author of the cookbook Deep Run Roots. Avoid delegating tasks you really enjoy doing, however trivial. “Those contribute to your overall job happiness,” says Nirdlinger. Maybe you love to book your own business-trip flights (and are super picky about layovers).
Discover everyone’s superpower. Take the time to better know your teammates and their unique skills. “Every nurse has an individual awesome trait, whether that’s demystifying medical jargon for patients or being the best blood draw,” says former psychiatric nurse Elizabeth Scala, author of Stop Nurse Burnout. Once you’ve found your PowerPoint guru or cold-call pro, it’s easier to entrust the person with that signature task.
Pinpoint growth opportunities. Give everyone the chance to shine. “Delegation is not just about you. It’s about empowering people to grow and try something new,” says Nirdlinger. “If you can’t stop being busy long enough to delegate, you’re holding your team back.” Ask yourself, “Who could really benefit from this experience or this challenge?” says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It. If there’s someone who would learn from exposure to a new department, send her to a meeting in your place.
Ask for volunteers. “Sometimes we are so mired in our busyness that we don’t step back and see who is around to help,” says Nirdlinger. She recommends saying to your team, “I’m feeling overwhelmed. Is there anything you notice me doing that you think you could assist with?” People like to be helpful, says Nirdlinger: “It makes them feel valued.” As volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in Knoxville, Tennessee, Trinity Edgar solicits feedback and asks volunteers what task they’d like to take on. “We want to make sure they’re comfortable while pushing them to expand their comfort level,” she says.
Delegate in all directions, including up. Sometimes a peer is the best person for the job at hand; sometimes a task that would take you hours can be done by a manager with one call. Let the person know that her expertise or involvement is going to lead to a company win. “Be mindful of your language,” says Lindsey Pollak, author of Becoming the Boss. Use the word “support,” “assistance,” or “guidance” instead of “delegate.” To a peer, Dufu suggests saying, “I could really use your support to solve this problem. Can you attend these three meetings in my place and provide your keen insight?” To a manager, say, “Your taking on these two things is going to remove some huge barriers for the project.” You’re not moving to-dos off your plate; you’re expressing what needs to be done to hit this assignment out of the ballpark.
Communicate the Task
Lay out clear expectations. Clarity is vital when you delegate any task. “Explain exactly what you need and agree on the output,” says Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit. Be specific (does “ASAP” mean by tomorrow or by 5 p.m. today?) and don’t assume someone is going to do the task the way you naturally would. “Different generations use different tools,” says Pollak. If you want someone to handwrite a thank-you note rather than send an email, say precisely that.
Show, don’t tell. Demonstrate what success looks like. “Listening in on a sales call and hearing exactly what you say and how you respond is usually better training than any script,” says Pollak. Or give your coworker five examples of what excellence looks like and examples of what not to do. After this person has shadowed you for some time, says Scala, be forthcoming and ask, “Do you feel comfortable now to do it yourself?”
Advertise the upside to every task. Let’s be honest: Few people are thrilled by the idea of booking a conference room or organizing a supply room. Even if your request is not sexy, express it with enthusiasm. “People are hungry to learn and eager to help when the ask is positioned as an opportunity,” says Dufu. For example, if you need someone to take notes in an executive meeting, say, “This meeting is a chance for you to get a window into the politics of this company. I would love for you to attend and take notes.” Howard adds a reminder: “Being a delegator is not being a dictator. Be nice about it.”
Assess Whether It’s Working
Decide how you’re going to check in. Once you’ve transferred ownership, determine how you’ll get updates. “Set something up that works with both your personalities,” says Nirdlinger. Create a timeline and be specific about what you expect at each checkpoint, says Brown-Philpot.
Troubleshoot together. If the delegating isn’t going well, be up front about what’s not working. Ask a series of honest questions: “Did you have all the information you needed?” “Do you need training?” “Is this something you feel comfortable doing?” Participate in the solution to turn the conversation from defensive to tactical, says Nirdlinger.
Roll with it. Every now and then, you just have to compromise. “Sometimes I can’t articulate my vision in a way that’s understandable,” says Howard. “You have to be open to other people’s way of doing things and make tweaks along the way.” Even if the task wasn’t done perfectly, if it gave you time to focus on another important project or leave early enough to hit the gym or tuck in the kids, that’s a definite win.