Why Delegating Tasks Before a Vacation Never Works
Have you ever returned to work from a vacation only to stare in disbelief at unfinished work you believed you’d carefully assigned to others? It’s frustrating, but the fault may actually lie in your own approach to delegation. The necessary work starts way before you set up your “out of office” message. All too often, managers confuse true delegation with simply asking staff members to do things — usually to lighten their own load. But that doesn’t create the accountability or empowerment people need to really own the task. Before you delegate a task, think through how handing it off might develop the other person’s skills or make use of their unique strengths. And when you hand it off, focus the conversation not only on key deliverables and outcomes, but also on what the employee will learn or gain by owning the task. And the next time you come back from vacation, you should find the work humming along without you.
Has returning to work after your vacation left you feeling less than refreshed? Have you stared in disbelief at unfinished work you believed had been carefully assigned to others during your absence? If so, you are not alone. But at the risk of blaming the victim, you may be more responsible for your fate than you realize. These feelings may be a sign that you need to reassess your overall approach to delegation. The time to do this is way before you prepare for your next leave.
The verb delegate means to entrust or to assign responsibility or authority. Fundamentally, it’s about empowering another person to do something. All too often, however, managers confuse true delegation with simply asking staff members to do things. Consciously or not, they feel that the work belongs to them and that staff members are there to help them accomplish that work. This framework for thinking about delegation creates problems for both parties: Employees tend not to feel the sense of ownership that stimulates their deepest commitment, and bosses perpetually feel burdened by unrelenting workloads. Managers who operate with this mindset often complain that their employees lack initiative and accountability. While their frustrations are completely valid, the root cause of the problem does not necessarily lie in the employees. It may lie inside managers who need to reframe how they think about delegation.
The first step is to move beyond focusing on the work. A deep understanding of the work is essential for any manager, but it’s just the foundation for execution. Before making any assignments, a manager needs to break the work into components that integrate with one another, seeing it as a system rather than as discrete tasks. For example, an engineering manager might study how task prioritization, programming, quality control, and client communication all affect one another and the overall effectiveness of the department.
The next step is to match these components of the system with staff members. Naturally, the matching process considers available capacity and skills, but to be truly effective it also needs to be tied to development. Returning to our engineering manager, she might assign client communication for a key customer to her head programmer to deepen his exposure to business issues and to more fully leverage his naturally consultative style. An assignment that demonstrates your understanding of an employee and their needs strengthens your relationship with that employee. And that assignment is far more likely to be embraced with an eye toward ownership than a task that appears to be handed out with a focus only on lightening your own load.
When you have the actual assignment discussion, focus must be primarily on the employee, with the work in the background. In a successful discussion, you will:
Framing the conversation this way introduces the idea of ownership, while making it clear that ownership doesn’t mean flying solo — you do need to know about progress, but you will trust the employee to direct that process. In other words, you are there to support and assist them, not vice versa.
The manager, of course, never actually loses focus on the work, but their language continuously reinforces their focus on employees’ success at managing that work. As challenges arise, the question is not “What can I do?” but rather “How can I best support you as you manage this?” In creating a culture of ownership, language matters a great deal. If you discipline yourself to have your focus on the employee’s success, the right words are more likely to come out. If your true focus at the critical moments is the work, your words are more likely to drift away from reinforcing ownership.
Delegation and ownership only succeed when they make sense to everyone involved. Don’t keep your intentions a secret. Instead, let your team know what your goal is: simultaneously building their skills and careers while delivering outstanding results. If ownership is new for your team, share what you think will be hard about it. Anticipate ways you each may fall into old behaviors, and agree to keep each other on track when ownership falters. Stress pushes all of us back to old, comfortable behaviors; acknowledging that up front makes it easier to talk about when you feel it happening. If you know you tend to swoop in with solutions too often, ask your team to call you on it when you do it. Return the favor when they attempt to push a problem back into your lap.
Once you’ve established the main areas of ownership for each of your team members, it should be fairly clear to everyone who should take on what when you’re away. As your weeks become filled with strategically deploying resources, carefully observing performance, asking insightful questions, and providing candid feedback, you’ll still be busy. But not so busy that you can’t take a vacation — and return to the pleasant sound of your department humming along.
Carol A. Walker is the president of Prepared to Lead, a management consulting firm in Boston. Before founding the company, she worked for 15 years as an executive in the insurance and technology industries.
Why Delegating Tasks Before a Vacation Never Works
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