In theory, most leaders know how important it is to delegate challenging tasks to employees both to help them grow and create a collaborative, empowered, productive team. But, faced with real workplace demands, it can be tough to put this into practice. Many of my clients say things like “I’m the only one who can do the job” or “If this project doesn’t go smoothly, the whole team will suffer.”
Empathy can get in the way, too. When you see an employee struggling, it’s only natural to want to step in and help. But from the other side, this can feel more like micromanagement than support. And when leaders over-function by keeping too many tasks, they allow their teams to under-function.
Here are some strategies you can use to make delegation easier.
Shift from doer to leader mindset
In my corporate job, we promoted the best doers into leaders. This came with an assumption that they would magically shift from being good at and motivated by performance excellence and rewards to excelling at and caring deeply about developing others’ potential. The mindset shift may be the hardest part of all. So, how can you facilitate this in yourself?
Notice your payoff from doing. The thrill of achievement provides a quick dopamine hit. But that’s something you need to resist to get to the greater fulfillment of having helped others improve.
Claim your leadership identity by getting clear on values. Ask yourself: What three words do I want people to use to describe my leadership style? For example: Do I want to lead with control, urgency, and expertise? Or, with patience, curiosity, and empowerment?
Be intentional about responding, not reacting. In the moments where you are triggered to step in, ask yourself: Would that be aligned with my values and who I want to become as a leader?
Embrace the discomfort of the learning process
Many leaders have said that, after witnessing an employee falter, taking back the work felt like the most supportive thing to do. But there is power to holding space for struggle. Yes, this creates discomfort for both leader and employee because it’s a new way of working for everyone. However, as Gallup reminds us, one of the keys to engagement at work is the opportunity for stimulating challenges. And when you push through the struggle, the result is growth for all parties.
How can you embrace, rather than resist, the struggle of learning?
Name your emotions, which according to psychologist Susan David, offers clarity and resiliency and can empower you to respond in an intentional way, aligned with your values.
Normalise being uncomfortable, embrace the struggle. Neuroscientists know that these are the periods in which learning happens and perseverance is developed.
Reframe the situation. One potential reframe is: “I was allowed to struggle and that’s where I gained confidence in my skills. So I’m going to give my employee the same gift of time to solve the problem on their own.”
Distinguish between high- and low-stakes tasks
Leaders often tell me they remain stuck as doers because employees make too many high-impact mistakes that require intervention. But this usually happens when the bosses themselves hold on to all the work for far too long and are then forced to delegate at the wrong moment. The key is to instead hand off tasks when the stakes are low and missteps tolerated, or even expected.
What makes an environment low-stakes? Failure will support learning more than it would hurt reputation. Mistakes will not impact team or company success. The environment is safe for stops and do-overs. The people involved have support and compassion for less experienced colleagues on learning curves.
To know which tasks are ripe for delegation, consider ones that now feel easy or rote to you but would be good development opportunities for those on your team? Also think about work that drains your energy and doesn’t align with your skills, talents, and strengths but might excite and feel like a perfect fit for others.
For example, if your employee’s goal is to develop better presentation skills, try a low-stakes activity like asking them to lead the next staff meeting before a high-stakes one like conducting a client meeting. Or, if they want to get better at influencing others, challenge them to get buy-in from a small team on using a new tool or work process before asking them to persuade your whole division to implement it.
Be curious and facilitative
Early in your corporate career as a trainer, people may tell me that you are visibly nervous during sessions you are leading. You may explain to your boss that I was worried about not having answers to participants’ questions. Her response: “What if your role isn’t to have all the answers but to facilitate the expertise in the room?” This changed my perspective.
Like trainers, leaders can’t be expected to have all the answers. But they do need to have patience and curiosity and ask insightful questions to facilitate learning. For example: What has your current approach been? Can you apply past experience to this problem? What is this situation teaching you?
Finally, practice compassion and grace. This doesn’t mean tolerating poor effort or careless mistakes. Instead, it means offering understanding and accommodation in the face of someone not doing something exactly how you would do it.
You got to have the courage to delegate to colleagues and team members even if it means watching them struggle. That’s the only way that all of us — leaders and employees — grow.
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