How I learned to delegate without guilt

I used to think of delegation as a selfish, one-way act to take work off my plate and put it on others' plates. Then I learned delegation opens the door for people on my team to shine and advance
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As we continue to work remotely in the wake of the pandemic, many of us may question if we’re working hard enough. After all, we don’t have a visible frame of reference with our peers. This sense of uncertainty can fuel anxiety and burnout.

In my recent talks with government IT leaders, burnout is front of mind – not just for the staff but even at senior levels of the leadership chain. I’ve been in customer meetings where senior leaders teared up about how hard their teams are working to save the US economy, while knowing several people on their team passed away due to COVID. I was in another meeting where one individual contributor needed to restart a mission-critical application with a memory leak every day at 6 p.m. wherever she was – including when she goes out to dinner with her husband and has to pull out her work laptop in the middle of the restaurant.

If you've been asking, “Am I working hard enough?” I’d like you to ask, "Am I doing the right things?"

So if you’ve been asking, “Am I working hard enough?” I’d like to challenge you to instead ask yourself, “Am I doing the right things?” This includes delegation, which applies to not only people managers but also individual contributors.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

My wakeup call regarding delegation

As I transitioned from being an individual contributor to a people manager, I stubbornly thought I could sustainably do my previous role and new role by simply working harder. Ultimately, I burned myself out as I came to the cold realization that I couldn’t do 100 percent of both jobs anymore. There needs to be a balance. And, what got me to where I am isn’t necessarily the right thing for me to continue doing.

The activities that made me successful in the past are perfect opportunities for others to take over and shine.

I used to think that delegation was a selfish, one-way act to take work off my plate and put it on others’ plates until I saw this must-read article. What I learned: The activities that made me successful in the past are perfect opportunities for others to take over and shine. By not delegating these things to them, I’m denying them their own opportunity to visibly excel.

Once I realized this, I offered up many of the things I did to not only my team but also others in the organization. To my surprise and delight, they didn’t see this as more unplanned work but rather as growth opportunities. They embraced these opportunities with zeal and were able to put more effort into it than I currently had at the time. In many cases, they did a 90 percent good-enough job which was totally fine as I was able to coach them on the last 10 percent. This became a win-win situation for everyone.

I saw a trio of benefits:

  • I had more time to focus on my new role.
  • The people who got delegated work got to tackle opportunities that they saw as new and exciting.
  • The organization became more resilient through richer, more diverse engagement, as new people came into discussions.

How to get your teammates to delegate

Delegation can be a talent retention tool.
As for the other leaders and individual contributors on your team, they have the opportunity to delegate too. It could be a talent retention tool for them. What are those things that may seem blasé to them? A more junior person may be delighted with an opportunity to have their voice be heard.

A move toward new delegation is also a perfect time to elevate the voices and visibility of traditionally underrepresented groups. This not only helps the individuals in these groups but also improves organizational decision-making and outcomes as a whole.

At Red Hat, we place a high value on mentoring. In fact, mentoring is required for many of the field senior technical roles. In one case, an associate was getting burned out because he had a lot of commitments on his plate and also volunteered to mentor a few associates on the promotion track. I suggested that he ask the mentees if they would like to take some of the things off his plate, as part of the mentorship agreement. It worked well: The mentor and mentees all won, because the mentor was able to focus on other things, and the mentees were performing next-level tasks that elevated their visibility throughout the company.

What work can your boss pass to you?

Lastly, I’d encourage you to think about your immediate bosses. They are probably facing the same stresses and burnout as government IT leaders as they lead us through the pandemic and recovery. When I think about all the “monkeys on their backs,” I’m reminded of the classic HBR article that encourages leaders to help their associates solve their problems themselves to develop self-sufficiency. The article encourages leaders to essentially ensure the associate leaves with the same number of monkeys on their back as when they came into your office.

As we all have bosses, my challenge to you is to ask your boss how you can help them. What monkeys can you take off their backs? What can your boss delegate to you, for your own development? You’ll be helping them out - and perhaps earn the opportunity to grow in ways you have not yet imagined.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

David Egts is the Chief Technologist of Red Hat’s North America Public Sector organization where he directs a global team of technical experts and field product management to help government clients improve service delivery the open source way.

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