Q: As I progress, I seem to get more and more loaded up with responsibilities. I'm working crazy hours. I know I should delegate more, but everyone downstream of me seems to be too busy. I find it hard to decide what my priorities should be.
A: It seems you have two closely connected issues: delegation and prioritisation. Effective delegation happens only when a manager gives the right task to the right person in the right way. If expectations are not explicit, if the task is ill-defined, or if the person who is meant to do it is incapable of executing it, chances are the job will not be done properly, and the manager will have to take back the responsibility for getting it done. This makes the person originally charged with doing it feel inadequate and, anxious to avoid similar criticism, likely to claim to be 'too busy' next time they're asked.
In this way, poor delegators remain loaded up with tasks they shouldn't be handling, and the people they manage are denied the development opportunity of conquering new challenges.
But deciding what areas and tasks should be delegated is where priorities come in. Many acres of forest have been turned into books on how to manage our time. Rather fewer have been devoted to the topic of sorting out our priorities, though this is the real nub of time-management. For although we may take in some of the advice offered by these books and time-management systems and become proficient at parcelling up chunks of time and allocating them to tasks, we can end up being efficient but not effective if the resulting actions don't reflect our true priorities.
There can be conflicts between rival priorities. What does the organisation expect from us, short-term and long-term? What are the needs of those we manage? What do we ourselves want from our work and our lives outside work? Is it more important for me to respond to the finance director's e-mail or to attend my son's school play? Should I spend time developing a plan to offer a new service or use that hour sorting out a dispute between members of the team?
A simple method for establishing priorities is to make a comprehensive To Do list of all your tasks, responsibilities and obligations, at work and at home. It may be dauntingly long. Then sort the list into three categories. Group A represents the things that have bad consequences if you don't get round to doing them. Group B are the ones that have good consequences if you do them. Group C have pleasing but non-essential results. If you have things on your list that don't fit any of these categories, you can delegate or drop them. This methodology may well help you crack through the backlog of accumulated tasks weighing you down.
The downside of this approach is that it might encourage you to prioritise tasks that avoid negative consequences and downgrade others, so you get round to doing rewarding things less often. In the short term, this may be unavoidable, but constantly living this way can sap your energy, so it's worth balancing it with a more existential approach, establishing your own values and a sense of how you are valuable to others.
To gain perspective on this, stand back from your work and personal life to decide what are the most important things to you now and what you wish for yourself in the future. Having done this, look through this new, personal lens at the way you are living your life to see if it matches your values. If the match isn't good, work out what you could do or view differently to make the transition to living the way you really want. People who live according to their own values are usually happier and more successful than those who dance to someone else's tune.
Equipped with this understanding of what is personally important, look over your To Do list again and identify the things that only you can do. These are the areas where you really add value. The rest are either things that could be done as well, or better, by someone else, or that may not need to be done at all. Once you've sorted out what tasks and roles to delegate, work out who would be best to do them, given their competence, attitude and workload.
If some are willing but not totally able, give them the task but support them in doing it. If some are able but not very willing, point out that accomplishing the task would be developmental for them. In either case, be generous in your praise for their efforts, to encourage them to take on more projects and reduce your overload.
- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.