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There is something about growing up in a family with four children that makes the importance of delegation obvious long before entering the workforce. The fact that my father took the time to mentor me as a potential future leader of the family business (which mostly consisted of him sharing advice and perspectives from the top while I learned the switchboard and subbed in for admins on maternity leave – an approach I highly endorse) also helped. But most of my early exposure to delegation focused on the need to delegate.
I was also of the generation raised on the golden rule and Dilbert comics. From a very early age, I was determined that if/when I found myself in positions of authority, I would be the type of leader who sheltered and protected her team rather than the type who regularly rained excrement down upon their heads.
Over the past few decades, however, I have become increasingly familiar with the Platinum Rule: Treat others as THEY want to be treated. While there are nearly endless reasons to espouse this particular philosophy, there is also a hidden benefit for well intentioned leaders that can transition the entire concept of delegation from “needing” to delegate to “getting” to delegate.
Of course, any leader still “needs” to delegate but my good intentions as a young leader often led me to pass along to my team the projects and tasks that I found to be most desirable. As my goal was to avoid being the jerk who did all the fun work and dumped everything else down the chain of command, making an effort to pass along work that I would have been happy to do myself seemed like a reasonable sorting mechanism.
This approach had a few unintended consequences.
First, passing along work that I was particularly passionate about made truly delegating more difficult for me. In handing over work that I cared about so deeply, I often found myself “checking in” more often than was strictly necessary. I was also quicker to criticize when a solution was different from what I might have done rather than considering whether “different” was actually “inferior”. In short, passing along this type of work often edged me closer to micromanagement than I liked.
Second, I spent an inordinate amount of time doing tasks that felt like mild torture, dragging my feet and often procrastinating. This was painful for me and inefficient from a purely economic perspective. I rarely took the time to consider the balance between doing what felt right for my team and what might have been fiscally responsible for the company. Motivating teams with interesting work is deeply important but so is considering the relative “cost” of different individuals’ hours.
And perhaps worst of all, my desire to share the “best” work with my team sometimes backfired! Work that was interesting to me occasionally proved to be boring drudgery for my team members. Assuming that work I found torturous would be equally painful to everyone sometimes resulted in team members being denied work that they would have truly enjoyed. The times I misjudged the appeal of a given project and dipped into micromanagement land were the worst situations of all. My good intentions were far from enough to avoid the very circumstances I had been striving to avoid!
So what have I learned to do instead? Before delegating tasks, I take a moment to consider what work is on my plate that might seem like drudgery to me but could be a growth or development opportunity for someone else. I also think about the individual preferences of each person on my team and what type of work appeals most to them. Then, and only then, do I consider the cost to the company of any given assignment.
Armed with these new perspectives, I can often offload work that would have been painful for me to complete personally while leaving my team members feeling rewarded rather than dumped upon. In the, hopefully now far rarer, situations where I still feel an obligation to pass along work that may be unappealing to the individual assigned, I have clear and detailed reasoning I can offer for context and perspective. At a minimum, this provides the team member with insights into the decision making processes they may one day face later in their own careers.
Delegating is often fraught with challenges and sometimes only imperfect solutions are available but when you take the time to apply the Platinum Rule over the Golden Rule, the chances that everyone comes out ahead are drastically increased. Sometimes, we truly GET to delegate.