Giving Work Away

Delegation wears two faces. There is the face everyone likes, where good and challenging work is delegated from more senior staff to more junior staff, and junior staff are mentored through the difficult bits. But there is also delegation where boring mindless tasks are shifted from more senior staff to more junior staff, and junior staff suffer through work their supervisors could have done themselves.

Have I set it up enough to make you feel what “good” and “bad” delegation looks like? I hope not. Because both of those faces of delegation are necessary and right. We need them both. Let me illustrate why.

The first, happy face of delegation serves two purposes: it gets work done, and it builds the skills of the person to whom the work is delegated. It also makes the delegate-ee feel happy and engaged. It can make the delegator feel that they are doing their job well, mentoring more junior staff, and building capacity and range on their team. Good feelings all around. So what is the drawback to this kind of delegation?

Time, and the allocation of people’s time to its best possible use.

Imagine “The Work We Have to Do” as a Venn diagram:

delegation Venn diagram

Black box: The Work, as a whole, that a team (or two people here for simplicity) are responsible for.

Red circle: A more senior person, here just called “Senior,” who by dint of years and training and trial-by-fire has a pretty large skill set that covers most of The Work.

Blue circle: A more junior person (“Junior”) whose skill set is smaller, but still significant. Junior also has some skills that Senior does not.

How to get the work done? The sections of The Work that are covered only by Junior must be done by Junior (“Must Delegate”). The sections that are covered only by Senior must be done by Senior (“Can’t Delegate”). That leaves the central, overlapping section (“May Delegate”) as the entire possible world of tasks to consider delegating. What is in this overlapping section? In addition to overlapping technical or managerial tasks that either staff member could do, this section also includes tasks most people consider unpleasant: finding stuff, following up on stuff, filing stuff. They are no one’s idea of a good time, and we can tend to dismiss these tasks as undignified. No one minds when their supervisor delegates a challenging piece of work that shows trust in their technical prowess. Most of us do mind when our supervisor delegates a piece of work that the supervisor could easily have done themselves and that neither of us like doing.

Imagine that Junior and Senior are working together on a proposal for a new grant. Junior has been asked to write the first draft, and is doing a fabulous job. Every day, though, Senior will ask Junior to do something administrative like find her the phone number of a contact, chase down a lost citation, or send out the call-in codes for the conference call. These requests are baffling to Junior: why doesn’t Senior respect her enough to do those things herself, since they are so quick and simple? It takes time to even explain the tasks to Junior, time Junior thinks could be better spent simply getting the frigging task done. And hasn’t she been proving her worth by her good work on the first draft?

What Senior is doing, though, is shedding the work that she can shed so that she can do the work that no one else can. If you look at the diagram of The Work, you can see that Senior covers a goodly portion of it that Junior can’t. There are only so many hours in the day, and so anything that Senior cannot delegate and does not have time to do herself doesn’t get done. If Junior has any time in her schedule, Senior should delegate all delegate-able tasks to free up time for Senior to do what only she can do. It isn’t a question of respect, or trust, or even power.

This is a very utilitarian approach to delegation and work, and while it is useful from the perspective of getting work done, it isn’t enough. A team where all work is delegated in a purely utilitarian way will be an unhappy one, where junior staff aren’t given a chance to grow and senior staff can begin to feel that delegation is a perk they are entitled to. If that happens, the team will be in trouble when delegation doesn’t flow from junior to senior when needed – there are times when the junior staff is the one who is more overloaded, in which case the senior staff should take from junior staff tasks that fall into the “May Delegate” zone of the Venn diagram, regardless of their desirableness.

On the flip side, a team where delegation is done only to grow the skill set of junior staff, and senior staff hesitate to delegate less-desirable tasks for fear of making their staff unhappy, or risk looking like they are making jerky power moves, won’t get as much work done as they could. The (presumably) higher-paid and higher-skilled senior staff is using time doing delegate-able tasks that they should be using to do non-delegate-able tasks, and that is wasteful.

So where is the balance? Search me. I think the best we can do is acknowledge there is a balance and a trade-off and make decisions about delegation with full consciousness of those trade-offs. Today, when I have a little more time, I may send out my own call-in codes and spend some time thinking big thoughts with a curious and ambitious younger colleague. Tomorrow, though, when all hell breaks loose on that proposal, that same colleague may be finding flip chart paper and buying new markers. I hope she’ll understand why.

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