If effective delegation were easy, I would have mastered it by now.  But it's not.  And how to delegate as an introvert involves an extra layer of complication.  You see, delegation is communication in disguise.  And that means it requires energy.  And doing it well requires even more energy.  So no, I haven't mastered the art of delegation yet.  But here's why I'm trying.

The hardest part of delegation is communicating well enough for another person to succeed.  I know what the tasks are and who would be good at performing them, but I want to communicate to others the way I'd want to be communicated to.

Delegation at its Worst

I don't want to be the kind of leader who communicates random tasks.  When done poorly, delegation looks like this:

"We need pastries on Thursday."

Umm...  I don't know what quantity to get, by when on Thursday, or whether the kind of pasty matters.  Even worse, I don't know why the task itself matters.  Is the boss planning on being hungry?  Are the pastries on sale on Thursday?  Are we having an event?  I'd likely grumble all the way to the bakery and back.

Effective Delegation

Effective delegation does not give a person a random task, but rather a role to play.  It gives the person enough information to be successful, without crossing into the realm of micromanagement.

Let's try again with the pastries.  I'd be much more happy to take care of them if I were told:

"On Thursday we have 4 prospective customers visiting the office at 10am.  I'd like them to feel welcome, so please make sure there are fresh pastries available in the conference room when they arrive.  One of the visitors has a nut allergy."

Ah!  Much better.  Now I get what we're doing, and I'm eager to help out.  I know how many people will be present, so I can estimate the quantities.  I know we're aiming for a welcoming environment, so I might take it upon myself to arrange the items nicely and tidy the surrounding area.  Thankfully the crucial nut allergy was mentioned to save us the embarrassment of having too few options.  In short, the second wording gives me something to be a part of.

How to Delegate

So what was the key difference between the two examples?  The communication style.  If I'm going to delegate something, I need to:

  • give a context for what we're doing.  I'm more invested when I know why something matters and whom it will impact.
  • state the logistics, including when the item is due and in what format.
  • describe the expected outcome.  I'm not going to tell someone how to do the task, but I want my team member to understand what the end goal looks like.
  • share any known resources.  There's no reason to make someone do something the hard way if I have a tool or information that will make the task easier or the outcome more successful.  This also minimizes errors and duplication going forward.
  • indicate the priority.  Unless the person is on stand-by, she will need to know how this item compares in priority to current work.

That's a lot of steps!  While none of these steps is particularly difficult, the effort required to communicate the task greatly increased.

How to Delegate as an Introvert

So how does delegation differ for introverts?  As an introvert I am constantly aware of the energy cost of different activities.  The mistake I've made countless times is to only measure the energy cost of doing the item against the energy cost of delegating the item.  I tend to skip the long-term calculation.

It's tempting to keep a lot of tasks for myself because the energy required to delegate effectively feels high.  But this is a flawed calculation because if I never delegate, the item will belong to me next time, the time after that, and so on.  Failure to delegate requires my energy each time the item arises.  So instead I should calculate how much energy will be saved in the future by equipping others to run with ball.

I want to give my team members space to grow.  That can't happen if I keep all the tasks for myself.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but somehow I had forgotten that the top talent identified in my Strengths Finder 2.0 report was "adaptability."  Granted, I took the assessment in 2010, but when I reviewed the results a few weeks ago, my response was an audible and amused laugh.  I did, after all, start a blog with "chameleon" in its title.  Apparently my core hasn't changed much!  This has been on my mind a lot recently since I've been reminded how aligning with individual strengths leads to exponentially different outcomes.

I've been working on a project that doesn't play to my strengths.  The project involves much more planning than adapting and while I am capable of doing the project in that I know what the steps are and how to perform them, I feel sluggish when I'm working on it.  My mind feels mushy and my enthusiasm drops.  I unintentionally drag my feet.  In contrast, when I do work that not only uses but highlights my adaptability, I shine.  My mind feels clear, my enthusiasm surges, and my interest in the work becomes an additional propeller.

Knowing this about myself, I need to do a better job talking with my team members about what they see as their individual strengths and how those align (or don't align) with our current projects.  As much as possible, I want our team structure to also make each individual shine.

Note to self: Reach out to team members more and ask their preferences through questions such as:

  • What's something you've worked on that greatly energized you?
  • If you could elect to never again do a particular task, which one would it be?
  • What's a current responsibility you have that you feel doesn't highlight your strengths?
  • What's something you would like to take on that you feel would really make you shine?

Give team members a safe space to communicate their preferences.  And then as best as possible, heed those preferences.

I could tell from my team member's eyes that I had hurt his feelings.  A change was happening at work, and I didn't account for the fact that he and I had previously discussed this topic and his preferences regarding it.  When I shared the news with my team, he approached me afterwards to ask why he didn't find out in advance or why I hadn't communicated more delicately about the topic.  His words were a punch in the stomach.

I had made a decision based on logic.  I listed out the pros and cons.  I thought through the impact of each option and the possible risks.  I weighed the known information and proceeded based on the results.  I did not give enough weight to how people would feel.  That doesn't mean my decision was wrong or that I would chose differently given a do-over, but I knew from the pain in my stomach that I could have done a better job in how I communicated the news.

Folks familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® are probably nodding because this is a classic example of the T-F dichotomy.  This preference pair deals with how people prefer to make decisions, whether by Thinking or Feeling.  We all use both, and preferring one does not mean a person is incapable of the other, but we each gravitate toward one or the other.

I consistently demonstrate a preference for Thinking.  While I don't necessarily want to change that, I do want to increase my awareness of how my actions impact others.  My team member was right to call me out.  A decision between two sides inevitably pleases some people and disappoints others.  We all know and accept this.  But if I want my team members to feel safe and valued, then how I communicate matters.

Dear Yesterday’s Self,
There’s a line between helping and smothering, and you’ve crossed it.  Recently you attended a training hosted by a team member on a familiar topic.  On previous occasions you’ve led the training, but this time you were there to support the presenter and hear audience questions.  During the presentation, you were surprised by a procedure being shown and interrupted to correct the presenter.  Instead of being helpful, this led to you stealing attention and fielding subsequent questions that the presenter was fully capable of handling.  Not surprisingly, the presenter was a bit flustered by the interruption.  To make things worse, you later learned that the different procedure was intentional and not a mistake after all.  You failed to give team members space to grow by not allowing the presenter to try her own way.

Note to self: Be humble, recognize that your way is not the only way, and give your team members their own creative space.

You may be the cause of your employee's "bad" behavior.  Ouch.  It's painful to hear, I know.  It took me a while to realize this.  If I have an employee who is less engaged than I want, I need to evaluate my own actions as much as his.  It's easy to see someone exhibit a "bad" behavior and jump all over the behavior, but the behavior is only a symptom.  This realization led me to an effective alternative to disciplinary action.

For example, say you have an employee who spends too much time on his phone during the workday.  How would you respond?

A common answer might be to give a written or verbal warning that escalates in severity depending on any prior offenses.  So now you’ve administered disciplinary action and told the person to stop the behavior.  What do you think happens next?  The threat of consequences may have curbed the initial behavior.  But have you really fixed the situation?  No.  Policing behavior and demanding that an employee change will, at best, lead to a different behavior.  Perhaps now the person will spend more time at the water cooler or start doodling or take more bathroom breaks.  Any of these new behaviors are still symptoms of the original problem.  The real issue you are battling is not the time spent on the phone, but rather what it represents.  The employee is not as engaged as you would like.

What if instead of disciplinary action, you give him access to a resource that will make his job easier?  What if you sponsor him to attend the certification program he’s been eyeing?  What if you find a side project that showcases his strengths?  What if you recognize his efforts in a personalized way?  Restricting an employee’s undesirable behavior doesn’t cause engagement.  Work to increase engagement instead.

Most of the time I make decisions by weighing out the known pros and cons with the hope that one side will weigh in much stronger.  When the winner is unclear, I have to take a different approach.  A decision making process I find highly effective in project management is to put myself in the shoes of the key stakeholders connected to the project.  I systematically think through what insight each of the invested parties can provide that I couldn’t otherwise see.  Here’s a few sample questions I’ve asked myself and a brief description of what I hoped that perspective might tell me.   

1. What is my gut response as a person who will stamp my name on the final product?  If I'm going to be associated with something, I want to be proud of the end result.  Does one of the options have a finer level of craftsmanship?

2. How would each option feel if I were a sales person conducting a demo?  Some factors might be revealed only during a high-stakes moment.  Would one of the options turn off potential customers right away?

3. How would I respond to each option if I were a decision-making customer?  Options that look the same on paper might vary greatly to the person who will use each one.  What would it feel like to use or experience each option?

4. Would my response change if I were a non-decision-making customer?  The decision-maker may be most concerned with price or durability while a recipient might be more concerned with features or ease of use.  How would each option feel if I were forced to use them?

Usually by the time I’ve walked in the shoes of the above groups, a winner becomes clear.  If not, I think of other shoes to try on.

I once had a team member who was struggling in a particular area, so I was on the lookout for a small-scale success where I could compliment him on a job well done.  I hoped that catching him “doing something right” would build a foundation for future success.    

One day during a team meeting, he surprised and impressed me with some relevant and pointed questions.  It was exactly the type of active engagement and critical thinking I value in my team members.  A small-scale success had presented itself.

After the meeting, I knew I wanted to say something to my team member to thank him for the discussion points he’d brought up.  And then, I’m embarrassed to say, my mind took over and talked me into circles about whether this was a good idea.  I started wondering whether praising good behavior was too much like praising a pet.  And whether encouraging a particular behavior was being too manipulative.  And whether an “attaboy” would even be received well. 

I completely failed.  I wanted to communicate appreciation in the workplace, but I overthought the situation way too much and let too much time pass.  I let the fear of not communicating right prevent me from communicating at all.  I tried to make it perfect and as a result did nothing.  

In retrospect, I could have said something as simple as, “Thanks for the questions you brought up in the meeting.  I think that led to a fruitful discussion.”  My message didn’t have to be grandiose.  A simple, sincere ‘thank you’ is better than a never-delivered one.