In a recent episode of the TV series Stranger Things, the four main characters, all young boys, show up at school on Halloween dressed as Ghostbusters. The problem is, two have dressed as Bill Murray’s character. When they argue about it, one boy tells the other, “We decided I would be Venkmann!” and the other responds, “You decided that. I didn’t.”
This immediately made me think about delegation, the art of sharing responsibility with team members by handing off some of your work to them. Even if you’re not a manager right now, you’ll probably end up in management someday, or your team might sometimes break up into smaller groups with you as a leader. Leaders of any kind tend to face far more work than they can possibly handle on their own. But that’s the whole point of having a team: to take on most assignments, leaving you to do the supervision and the high-value work you do best. No reasonable person expects you to be a one-person show. The general rule is to push the work as far down the hierarchy as possible.
But this works only as well as your communication and oversight skills. As painful as they may be, delegation mistakes are par for the course; as long as you learn from them, you’re fine. Better yet, why not learn to avoid them in advance?
Let’s look at a few mistakes commonly made when delegating to others. To make them easier to remember, I call then the ALTO errors.
Assuming everyone is on the same page — This may be the most common of all delegating mistakes. Like Mike in Stranger Things, you may think everyone has agreed on who’s going to do what, when in fact the designated person hasn’t, or didn’t understand your instructions. You can avoid poor clarity with a few simple questions, though if you get in a hurry, you might forget to ask. Fortunately, you can easily catch this type of oversight during a standard “trust but verify” check-in. In this case, even if the task gets a late start, at least it’s moving. Which brings us to the second and worst mistake.
Lack of oversight — Delegated tasks aren’t fire-and-forget; they require an occasional check-in to ensure someone’s doing them. While it’s best to trust your people, you can’t just assume a particular individual understood that you handed off the task to them instead of the person next to them. If you don’t verify, you may end up in the awful situation where you need the completed task on your desk right now — and it’s not even started. Though rare, this does happen; and it may prove job-ending if it involves some highly important task. This is on the delegator for failing to communicate more than it’s on the recipient, unless the latter completely lost the plot and failed to pay attention.
Too much oversight — Classic micromanagement may get the job done, but only at the cost of frazzled nerves, wasted time, and damaged trust. No one needs a helicopter boss. The proper way to handle this is to have regular meetings where everyone checks in and reports, or to email the delegates to see how the task is going. You don’t have time to babysit everyone. If you try, your performance and theirs will suffer.
Ordering the wrong person to do the task — Don’t tell a technical writer making $25 an hour to make and bind copies of a report she’s just written for the next board meeting, unless no one else is around to do it. That’s work for the intern; having the tech writer do it wastes time and money. Similarly, don’t appoint a novice programmer to anything crucial if you have enough veteran coders on hand. Not that the inexperienced coder can’t do the job, but a veteran can almost certainly do it faster with fewer mistakes, offsetting any savings in terms of salary. Yes, experience only comes by doing the work; but put the greenhorn on less-crucial tasks until they reach or surpass the veteran’s level of quality.
Easy does it
For many of us, delegation is one of our least-favorite parts of the job. Life, and culture, often teaches us not to rely on anyone we don’t know exceedingly well. But delegation becomes more necessary the higher you rise in your profession, so you will end up doing it at some point. Share your responsibility wisely, keeping these common mistakes in mind.