Managers plates are often overflowing, so the question is when and what to delegate

Do you feel almost too busy to read this article? And way too busy to develop your team these days? This article may very well be about you.

Managers are busy people who increasingly find themselves wrestling with the frustrating fact that they have to be both a leader and a doer. These player/managers traditionally have been found in professional service settings—for example, accountants, lawyers, physicians, architects, engineers, management consultants, and academics. But in today's increasingly knowledge-driven, cost-competitive work world, player/managers can be found in ever-growing numbers in a wide range of different settings and situations:

  • managers who discover that they still have to perform some of the work they used to do before they became managers—and feel guilty because of it
  • managers in organizations buffeted by economic uncertainty who need to stay professionally competent and relevant to maintain their employability
  • reluctant managers who feel that being saddled with management responsibilities is keeping them from doing the technical/functional work they really enjoy doing
  • individual contributors in any field who are beginning to take on management responsibilities.

To delegate or not to delegate

If you find yourself encumbered with leader/doer responsibilities and are not sure how best to proceed, become a myth buster with regard to conventional management thinking that holds player/managers back. Consider this for a moment: How many times have managers heard some version of the following?

  • Every time you do work you could have delegated, you're nothing more than the highest paid member of your team.
  • If you are not delegating, you are not managing.
  • Don't fall into the trap of continuing to do the particular things you really loved doing before you became a manager.
  • If you can't let go, you are being controlling and not developing your people.
  • If you get caught up in the details of doing work you could have delegated, you'll be "thinking too small to think big."

However, when it comes to the actual practice of being a manager, how many times have many, if not most, managers considered some version of the following?

  • The job must get done ASAP, and I am the one person with the expertise to get it done on time.
  • I don't trust (or believe) that my people can get the job done on time with the right level of quality.
  • I'm concerned that I'm losing my technical relevance because the professional knowledge and skills that I developed prior to becoming a manager are now atrophying.
  • Isn't there some way that as a manager I can delegate most tasks, but still get productively involved in other tasks that I might have delegated?

Based on our experience helping player/managers become "can-do" leaders, the answer to the last question is, most definitely, "Yes, you can." You can both delegate and do as a successful manager. In fact, selectively doing work you might otherwise have delegated enables you to keep up with some of the important technical aspects of your chosen field. Selectively doing also can provide you with opportunities to become a better manager and better develop your team's capabilities.

We call the misguided belief that if you are not delegating you are not managing "the myth of the iron law of managerial delegation." Disobeying this hallowed precept of management orthodoxy from time to time does not mean abdicating your managerial responsibility. Even managers who are very skilled at delegating find themselves in situations where this law needs to be bent.

Effective managers understand that focusing on delegating tasks, rather than doing these tasks, is their first priority. That said, there are times when both getting things done properly and developing your staff can be better achieved by doing certain tasks yourself rather than delegating all of them.

Reasons for doing instead of delegating

Here are some situations where it can be useful for you, as a manager, to get directly involved in doing work you might have delegated, while also developing your team's capabilities.

  • Leading by example. Occasionally doing tasks yourself highlights your personal commitment to achieving a high performance standard and can demonstrate strategies and techniques that are useful for excelling at these tasks.
  • Assessing your team members' performance. Working alongside your colleagues from time to time enables you to assess their on-the-job knowledge and skills so that you have a better idea of their strengths and learning gaps.
  • Building team capability. Being right there with your team gives you opportunities to offer on-the-spot coaching and feedback in areas where you still have special expertise.
  • Improving your team members' morale. Rolling up your sleeves and helping out when your team is stressed can lift your team's spirits and increase your employees' respect for you as their leader.
  • Determining if systems and processes are working. Occasionally working alongside your team gives you the chance to observe firsthand if the way your team is organized is productive and if your organization's infrastructure and support mechanisms are helping or hindering your team's ability to perform well.

But of course, doing work that might have been delegated could backfire. When player/managers jump in to do tasks they might otherwise have delegated, with little regard for anything other than using their special expertise to get these tasks done properly, time will be taken away from managing. This also can have a negative impact on their team.

Team members may get the message that their manager doesn't think they're capable of learning how to do important tasks well, causing them to feel resentment and to become demoralized. They may even conclude that for important tasks they must defer to their manager, who will jump in as the "expert" to complete it. This can set in motion an unintended vicious cycle—the more the manager jumps in and does things that the staff might have done, the more the staff become dependent on the manager to do what should be their work. This is not good time management.

The real problem here is that many, if not most, player/managers get so caught up in a traditional "either I'm leading or I'm doing" mindset that they fail to see opportunities to address leadership issues while they are doing some of their team's work.


Don't be held back by "either-or" thinking

The "either-or" thinking associated with the myth of the iron law of managerial delegation encourages player/managers to adopt the mindset of thinking in terms of "Either I'm leading others or I'm engaged in doing the work myself." Framed this way, time spent doing professional work is time taken away from being a manager. And time spent managing is time taken away from doing professional work.

The zero-sum nature of this either-or mindset leaves player/managers feeling like they are never able to give proper attention to their leadership role or to their continuing professional responsibilities. Instead of feeling that they are contributing and succeeding, they are more likely to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and even guilty that they are not measuring up as professionals or as managers.

To take off the "either I'm leading or I'm doing" mental blinders, start by trying to use the kind of "both-and" thinking that will enable you to see that many activities associated with being a professional expert and a manager are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Instead, they can be mutually reinforcing. Make this can-do mind shift and you'll be well on your way to becoming a can-do leader who can develop a can-do competence in your team while doing work you might have delegated.

Too much on your plate? Try purposeful multi-impacting

When you are a leader who is doing work you might have delegated, the key is to be mindful of more than just avoiding negative impacts. You also must think about ways you could personally participate in getting the task done that also advance your leadership agenda—which should, of course, include developing your employees. We call this strategy "purposeful multi-impacting"—getting involved in an activity in a way that offers the promise of achieving more than one objective.

Purposeful multi-impacting describes a more efficient and productive way of getting things done than can be achieved by traditional multitasking. Purposeful multi-impacting works because:

  • It is more productive than multitasking, which usually involves continually switching your attention back and forth between unrelated activities.
  • Being aware of the potential positive and negative side effects of actions they might take helps can-do leaders identify good opportunities to advance their leadership agenda while doing tasks.
  • Purposeful multi-impacting becomes a way for can-do leaders to continually develop their team members while working alongside them.

Lee, who is an exceptional engineer, is a nice example of a can-do leader who makes good use of purposeful multi-impacting. Several years ago, he was promoted to the role of manager, but because of economic pressures he also was directed to continue doing some of the engineering work. To get the engineering and management results he wanted, Lee decided to be selective with regard to which engineering work he chose to do. Rather than jumping in to take on the tasks he used to like to do, he decided to look for opportunities to do work that gave him the chance to address some of his management responsibilities while also completing engineering tasks.

Lee did things like help a recently hired engineer, Joshua, who was behind schedule on an important new product design. Rather than simply taking over for Joshua to make sure the design was successfully completed, Lee worked with him in a purposeful, multi-impacting way. These developmental multi-impacts included:

  • Assessing people while doing. Lee was able to directly observe Joshua's on-the-job skill set, which gave Lee a better idea of how he might make better immediate use of Joshua's skills. Lee also identified a new technical skill that Joshua could develop to be more useful to the team.
  • Sharing expertise with people while doing. Lee offered some on-the-job tips that would enable Joshua to complete assignments more effectively and efficiently.
  • Building alignment while doing. Lee shared "war stories" with Joshua as they worked together. Shop talk made Joshua feel comfortable with Lee and reduced the possibility that Joshua's new product designs would require time-consuming reworks.
  • Assessing the needs of the work environment while doing. After personally experiencing delays caused by out-of-date software, Lee learned that if he could update the software his design team's increased productivity would more than justify the expenditure.

Like Lee, if you find yourself saddled with both doing and leading responsibilities, try looking for opportunities to purposefully multi-impact in ways that will develop your team's capabilities. You might find that this will enable you to get more done in less time—and have some fun in the process.

Benefits of a Can-Do Working Culture

On-the-spot performance feedback can lighten your management load and increase your team’s productivity. Giving and getting performance feedback that is instructive while you are working with team members can offer the following advantages:

  • Positive feedback that is specific reinforces desired behavior.
  • Positive feedback can create a psychology of success that encourages people to achieve even higher performance goals.
  • Instructive feedback helps people become more independent, so that they need less management attention in the future.
  • Giving and getting useful two-way feedback from those who report directly to you can enable you to manage them more effectively.
  • Giving and getting timely feedback enables you to quickly attend to developing problems.
  • Negative feedback that is instructive and delivered in a positive “here’s how you can get even better” manner helps people recognize and correct unproductive behavior.

But this only works if you, as team leader, instead of micromanaging and butting in all the time, make a special point of creating a can-do learning culture by seeking performance improvement ideas from your teammates and acting on them.