Unless you live by yourself on an island somewhere out in the Pacific, every single day people probably ask you to do stuff for them:
- Some people delegate down to you—for example, your boss hands you work.
- Some people delegate up to you—for example, your subordinates solicit your help.
- Some people delegate across to you—for example, your peers ask you to perform tasks for them.
The requests don't stop when you leave work. People probably delegate to you at home, too; your family and your friends ask you to do things for them.
Whether delegation comes from above, below, or across, and whether you're at work or at home, all delegation processes include similar elements. Master those elements, and you'll increase your productivity and improve your relationships, both at work and in your private life.
Consider the Power You Have as a Delegate
Even though the delegator might take the lead in the delegation process, as the delegate you have some say in how the process works. Even better, you have the power to improve your relationship with the person doing the delegating.
As the delegate, you likely have at least some power to accept or reject a request—the degree of power depends on your relationship with the delegator. Be on the lookout for situations that might get you into trouble. If possible, you should avoid these kinds of tasks:
- Tasks that are ambiguous
- Tasks that are better done by somebody else
- Tasks that have little value
- Tasks that are already running late or that have impossible deadlines
- Tasks you don't think you can do well
Above all, you don't want to take on a task that you can't accomplish—failing at such a task might tarnish your reputation.
When you spot any of these situations, think about whether you're in a position to reject the request. If so, should you exercise that power to reject the request? If your boss is delegating down to you, you might not be able to say no. But you can certainly help him or her to improve the delegation process, and you should certainly give your boss the message that you take delegation seriously.
If the delegator is not your boss (perhaps he or she is your subordinate or a peer), you still probably want to help, even if the delegating process leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, you probably want to improve your relationship with the person doing the delegating. In these cases, you might not want to turn down the request outright. After all, you might need to reciprocate by asking that person to do something for you on another occasion.
To help improve the delegation process, make it clear that you want to understand the reasons behind the task. Ask questions to find out what problem the delegator is trying to solve. This process will help you to understand what you're being asked to do; and, by asking the delegator to walk you through the reasons behind the request, you'll help the delegator to better understand what he or she is trying to accomplish. The two of you might even find a better solution to the problem.
Once you understand why the task needs to be done, make sure you understand when it needs to be done. Ask whether there's a deadline, whether that deadline is fixed and can't be changed, whether there's some flexibility. If there is no deadline, try to agree with the delegator on a due date. You should both have the same understanding about when the job needs to be finished.
Make sure you have the time and resources to complete the task by the expected date. If you don't have enough time or resources, make that fact clear to the delegator. When people delegate down to you, ask them what you should stop doing to free up time and resources to perform the new job. What does this new task replace?
Another important point: Evaluate the level of trust between you and the delegator. How do you perceive that trust, and how does the delegator perceive that trust? Does the delegator feel the need to make all the decisions for you, or to check up on you frequently? To head off any misunderstandings, delegates can say things like, "I'll get back to you with a set of questions by Friday," or "I'll finish the first part of the task by Tuesday."
Seven Steps to Surviving Delegation Successfully
Now that you're aware of the power that comes with being a delegate, follow these seven steps to ensure your success when somebody delegates a task to you:
- Make sure that you and the delegator have the same understanding of the task. Find out what problem(s) the task is supposed to solve. Do you and the delegator agree that what's being asked of you is the best way to solve the problem? Find out what the required results are and when the task needs to be finished. Is the deadline fixed, or do you have some wiggle room?
- Make sure you know why you are being asked to perform the task. Without coming across as somebody trying to shirk work, try to find out why the task is assigned to you, as opposed to somebody else. Are you the person who can do it best? Are you the person who has the most time to do it? Are you the person who can benefit the most by doing the task? Are you the person the delegator trusts the most to perform the task?
- Assess your ability to perform the task. Think about your skills and the help you may need. Do you need to learn something before you can do the work? Do you need help from somebody else, and is that person available to help? Do you have time to take on the task, or will you need to stop doing something else to start working on the new task?
- Assess the level of trust the delegator has for you. Will the delegator check on you from time to time? Do you need to communicate intermediate results? Do you need the delegator to participate in making choices along the way?
- Accept or reject the request—in either case, be clear. Think about what's being asked of you, and how that task fits into your role with respect to the delegator. Does the task fall within the bounds of your job description (if you're the subordinate)? Does the task fall within the bounds of what a supervisor should do (if you're the manager)? Is the task a reasonable request from a co-worker (if you're a peer of the delegator)?
- Once you've evaluated the request, you have four choices. Make it clear to the delegator which of the four choices you've made:
- Accept the request outright.
- Accept the request with a set of conditions attached.
- Reject the request outright.
- Reject the request with a set of reasons. In this last case, the delegator might be able to make changes that turn your rejection into acceptance.
The delegator might seem to have more control over the delegation process, but as the delegate you can help to improve the process and improve your relationship with the delegator at the same time. The strengthened relationship might serve you well when the tables turn on a different occasion, and you need to delegate something to your former delegator.
To find out how to become a better delegator, be sure to read my article "Five Steps to Delegating Successfully."