When you have too much to do, do you share the work?
Many people are suffering right now because of the overwhelming amount of work that they need to do, at work – which has been complicated and made more intensive by WFH – and at home, where the woman’s work that was never done has been made even more intensive by the fact that everyone is home all the time – so the cooking and cleaning has to be constantly refreshed. (Before Covid, you could bring the home to a certain state of clean and go to work, resting in the idea that it would at least remain that clean because everyone else was also out of the house all day.)
So what do you do when you reach this state of suffering?
Many people try to keep it all to themselves and suffer through until they finally collapse in burnout. Others say that they want to share the work (delegate), but they approach it from a state of fear, that causes them to overmanage and eventually say, “It’s easier if I just do it myself.”
“Easier if I just do it myself” is a copout.
I like to approach delegation as an opportunity to grow the other person’s skills. I use a four-step process for sharing work with someone who has never done it before.*
1.Walk behind me.
In the “walk behind me” step, I demonstrate the skill and we align on what successful completion of the task looks like. You demonstrate that you know how to do it and then I let you get to it, checking in on a regular basis to answer any questions, inspect the work, and realign as necessary.
In this stage, I delegate in pieces – I may ask you, for example, to take one step of a process. I may not describe the rest of the process to you. I may just give you each step at a time. When I was doing communications, for example, if you had never managed a campaign before I might assign you to draft the opening communication; when you had finished that, I might assign you to draft follow-up communications. But you wouldn’t be responsible for managing an entire campaign in this phase.
Or, if I were teaching a child to cook, I might show them how to measure ingredients, and direct them find the can of beans in the cabinet, but I wouldn’t hand them a recipe and tell them to go to it.
2. Walk beside me.
Walking beside me, I begin to show you how the pieces fit together. I walk you through the bigger plan, help you visualize each step. When we are clearly aligned on the plan, you take it and run with it, checking in with me as each step becomes due – or more often, if you have questions or run into roadblocks.
In the communications campaign example, we might sit down and agree on the various components, how long they needed to be, what resources were available to feed into them, who to partner with, when they were due. Then we would establish a regular check-in time where you would tell me how things were going, we’d review your drafts, and you could leverage my experience to overcome roadblocks.
At home, this might translate to assigning an older child to cook one of the dishes for dinner. You might tell them ahead of time that you are putting them in charge of one aspect of dinner, review the recipe with them, and answer any questions they have. Then, while you’re cooking a different aspect of dinner, you are available to answer questions and you can check in every so often to tell them what a great job they’re doing.
It’s important in these check-ins – both at work and at home – that my attitude is helpful, not judgmental: I am here to provide support, help you recognize success, and build your confidence that you can do this on your own. (Otherwise, we’ll never move past this stage and may even regress to the previous stage, and I’ll get stuck doing the work myself.) Flexibility is key: agree on what success looks like before you begin – if you wait until the work is half-way done to tell them that they have to keep the stove clean, you risk overload.
3. Walk before me.
The walk before me phase releases you to build and execute the plan on your own for the first time. In this phase, the focus is on building your confidence around building and delivering the plan on your own.
At work, this might mean that I ask you to prepare the next communications plan, using the previous one as a model. Then we set a follow-up time to review it together and I act as a magic mirror, asking you questions about it that help you identify opportunities for improvement. When we’re aligned on the plan, we agree on a check-in schedule – or key milestones where we check in – and I step away.
If I’m handing off dinner at home to a teenager, I might tell them they own dinner Wednesday night and ask them what they want to make (so I can do the shopping) – accepting that they may say pizza and that, although I would rather have something healthier, it won’t kill me to eat pizza one night a week especially if I don’t have to make it myself. I might also have to walk them through making some decisions (what kind of pizza, what ingredients do they need, what time do they need to get started, will they need to do any prep work ahead of time). Then I might check in with them that morning to see if they have any last questions before I go to work.
4. Walk on your own path.
In this one, my delegation is a lot looser. I may just say that we’ll need a plan for this next campaign – or dinner on Friday – and ask if they can take it. I’d still check in, but it would part of our regular check-in (at work) or a quick conversation at breakfast that day.
In all of these phases, trust, commitment and accountability are important. Trust that they can do it and that you won’t have to step in and take over; trust that, although they may not give you what you would have done yourself, it may still be wonderful. Commitment on your part to check-ins that are frequent enough but not too frequent; and that are focused on helping not judging. And Accountability that you establish what success looks like, and make sure they are aligned, and have the resources they need; and you own reflecting progress back to them so they can see whether or not they are on track to hit the target.
This four-step process enables you to share the work, takes things off your plate, and develops the skills of someone else so they grow as a person and learn to do things independently.
*This process assumes someone has never done the work before. Of course, more experienced people might start at a later step. For example, if I were assigning a communications plan to a new employee, I might ask questions and discover they have extensive experience, so I might not start them on step 1 for writing the work – although I might walk beside them until I’m sure I’m confident they understand the nuances of this organization vs. the one they were at before.
Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. What’s your approach for getting things off your overfull plate?