Dear Lifehacker, In both my work and personal life, I’m supposed to delegate responsibilities to others. Usually, this is great, because it helps get things done, but some of my co-workers and family just don’t do a good-enough job, whether it’s incomplete reports or lousy laundry skills. Outside of doing everything myself or firing/no longer working with these folks, what can I do? Signed, Helped But Feeling Helpless
Delegating is something we all should and have to do at times — whether we’re managing assistants, working on a school project with others, or dividing tasks with friends and family. Yet delegating is an art and a skill — a very difficult one that most people aren’t great at. Often, people also aren’t up to the tasks they’re given. Poor work usually isn’t the result of incompetence or a character flaw (although, yes, that could be the case sometimes too). Let’s look at the more common reasons why good people can fail or underperform on delegated tasks.
The Person Just Doesn’t Know What You Want
When you hand off a task, you have to be sure the other person understands exactly what the goals, purpose and requirements are for it. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The clearer you are on what the end result needs to look like, the better. Just telling your son to clean his room, for example, can be open to interpretation. Better to say, instead, all the clothes should be in the laundry basket, books on the shelves and nothing on the floor. How he gets there and organises everything may be up to him.
Just as important, you should know exactly what you want or expect. You wouldn’t ask your partner to make trip plans without knowing what kind of holiday you want to have, for example, or a co-worker to research major tech companies without yourself knowing the reasons for doing so and what kind of research you need.
I’ve used the service Fancy Hands to outsource bits of my life, usually with great time-saving results, but also with misses at times. Most of the tedious back and forth was because I failed to include details in my requests, such as my health insurance details when asking the virtual assistants to make a new doctor’s appointment. Try to anticipate any questions or resources the person you’re delegating to might need. Over at Tim Ferriss’s blog, Ramit Sethi provides several templates for writing clear, one-shot-one-kill emails to assistants — handy for mastering the art of clear communication in any circumstance.
The Person Feels Micromanaged
Giving clear instructions isn’t the same as micromanaging the person or telling him or her exactly how you would get the job done and all the tricks you would use. When people are micromanaged, it undermines their confidence and their performance — creating a vicious cycle where the delegator micromanages even more. Harvard Business Review calls this the Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome. (It’s kind of like asking your partner to make dinner and then standing over his or her shoulder telling them exactly which spices to put in when and what they should be doing at each step. Of course they’d be discouraged to cook again.)
Yet there’s a fine line between letting go and giving up control, so delegating is really a balancing act. Try to focus on the intent of the task and give the person room to explore ways to achieve it. In other words, assign the responsibility rather than a specific procedure, and just periodically check in with the person to see if they have any concerns or questions. Steven Sinofsky writes on LinkedIn a number of ways you can delegate effectively without micromanaging, including providing feedback rather than course correcting:
Things might not be always going as well as everyone wants and when that happens managers can sometimes slip into “gotta get this fixed” mode. This type of course correction can remove many of the downstream benefits of delegation and turn into a big negative for folks. It not only disempowers, but demotivates. When things aren’t going well, the time is right for honest feedback and a two-way dialog.
The Person Lacks Experience or Skills
It’s always wise to try to choose the best person for the job, but don’t avoid delegating tasks just because you can do it better/faster/easier. If a person who should be doing a task hasn’t tackled it before or is new to the organisation/environment, they’ll naturally need a little more practice before they can do it perfectly or near perfectly. Consider if that’s the case and, if so, delegate incrementally, with small tasks that could lead up to bigger projects. Rice University says:
Remember that even assignments that don’t involve new skills can provide learning opportunities. Start small. By gradually increasing the amount of work you delegate, you can help employees gain confidence and proficiency while easing your own transition away from these tasks.
Provide as much support and as many resources as possible, and try to lower your expectations while the person is getting the hang of it. It’s hard when often you might feel it’s just easier and quicker to do the thing yourself, but if you really want to get something off your plate in the long run, you have to be patient at first.
Also, be generous with praise when they do meet or exceed the goals or parts of them. Most people want to take pride in their work. From Rice again:
Research shows that people live up to or down to our expectations. It’s important to realise how much your support and confidence can help an employee succeed as well as how much your hesitation or lack of confidence, even if never stated verbally, can undermine a positive outcome.
The Person’s Just Not Motivated
We’ve all known that person who just never “shows up” or slacks off constantly. If the person just seems inherently lazy, there’s not much you can do about it — so skip to the next part below. However, sometimes a lack of interest is just because the person doesn’t feel, in business speak, “ownership” of the task. They have no accountability or any stake in the project.
The Art of Manliness has a few great tips on delegating in a way that people will willingly accept the assignment:
When you delegate a task to someone, that person will greet the task with one of two responses: resentment or pride. To ensure it’s the latter, never delegate responsibilities that everyone knows you should specifically be doing. You delegate tasks when there are more important things that you personally need to attend to, not when you simply find a task unpleasant. My personal rule is never to delegate things that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself if I could.
When you delegate a task, tell the person why you chose them-why you think their particular talents are well-suited for the project. Compliments go a long way, and will give the person a sense of being needed and a sense of purpose.
In addition to regular feedback and positive support, a shared project board (a checked-off chores chart for families, or a whiteboard) can help keep everyone on task.
The Person Really Is Incompetent or Unwilling to Improve
The tips above focus on helping you become a better delegator so you can get what you need done actually done well. But sometimes the other person will never be up to the task due to lack of effort or skill. After giving the person the benefit of the doubt, your options are to: a) assign the person different tasks more suited to his or her abilities, b) lower your expectations, and/or c) minimise the risk of a poorly done job if you can’t fire or de-friend/disinherit the person.
If your roommate is terrible at washing the dishes, for example, perhaps switch your vacuuming duties with his, split the cost of a dishwasher or agree to each wash your own dishes. Perhaps your school group member isn’t great at research but does have a way with words and can be reassigned appropriately. HBR says:
[Stephen Covey, vice chairman of FranklinCovey] emphasises the power of delegating based on subordinates’ deepest passions. “Find out what each of your direct reports does best and loves doing most,” he recommends, “then marry their unique talents and passion to the job’s needs. With passion, people don’t need supervision: They’ll generate creative solutions to problems on their own.”
Delegating responsibilities seems like more trouble than it’s worth sometimes, but it’s usually good for everyone involved (and if people never delegated, nothing would get done!). If you reassign tasks that are more appropriate and address any other issues above, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you can accomplish together. If not, your only option might be to surround yourself with more reliable people.