Your to-do list is twice as long as it was when you started out this morning. You’ve been interrupted twenty times, the email is piling up in your inbox and you’re dealing with more emergencies than an ER. You’re about to throw your computer out the window and head to Belize where opening a bar on the beach seems like a solid next step in your career. Then the employee you just handed a project off to this morning – the project you actually delegated – shows up in your doorway.
“I’m not sure what to do about….”
“Just handle it!” you bark.
Things just got worse.
Delegating well is a skill and like any other skill we can get better at it. Receiving a project well is also a skill and it’s one we talk about less. They’re the two sides of working together and they’re worth looking at side-by-side.
Handing off an assignment requires three basic things:
“Just handle it” obviously doesn’t cut it. If you find yourself giving this kind of guidance, you may already be in steps 2 or 3 and a quality conversation with your employee is probably in order, so feel free to jump ahead.
If you’re taking the plunge, set aside enough time to hand off a project so you can be sure to cover the specifics. What are you asking this person to do? What is the deliverable? When should it be complete? How will you be available for questions along the way? Take the time to really listen to them at this point because their questions will signal whether they’re prepared, need some help, or might benefit from a conversation with someone else who has done this type of work before.
You want to challenge and grow the people around you, but throwing them in the pool without any swim lessons is not usually the best way to do that.
Be present during the project. They may have questions. In fact, the first time around, you probably hope they’ll have a few questions. Likewise, you may want to know how things are progressing on a longer-term project. What do you need from them so you won’t arrive at different destinations three weeks from now? Nobody wants to generate a crisis at the last minute because you thought they were doing X and they thought you wanted Y.
Establish some agreement about checking in.
After the project is over, we usually rush on to the next one without half a moment’s pause. That’s a missed opportunity. When someone’s done a good job, tell them. And try to be specific. Did they do something creative that you didn’t originally ask for? Let them know. But don’t just focus on the good.
Have the difficult conversations too.
Did they deliver something that was less than you expected? They need to know. They can’t guess where they didn’t meet your expectations and, if they’re consistently falling short, you need to address that. If you set good expectations at the beginning, you have something to work with. Going over those specifics and comparing your directions to the deliverable is an important step. It will also challenge you to see your instructions from the other side.
Did you really tell them what you thought you did?
Were you clear about the format? The schedule? The content? If so, it should be in writing somewhere from your handoff. If not, you may want to focus more on that step next time.
Receiving a project well is the mirror image of good delegation:
Are you able to do the project as described? If you have other projects on your plate and you’re worried about time, speak up. It’s not whining to say “You’ve asked me to do these four things. I’d like to work on this project too but I need some clarity about deadlines. Do you have a sense of priority or can I review all five and get back to you with some suggestions? Do you have a top priority?”
Do you actually know what’s expected of you? For some people, this is easy. Maybe you’ve done this type of project before and you have an instant sense of what it’ll take. But when we’re getting something new, it can be hard to really know. In those cases, it’s helpful to find someone who’s done this type of project, run through the steps with them, ask lots of questions and get clear. Then double back with your supervisor with any questions about the direction you’ve received.
If you’ve been asked for updates, share them. Take the time to understand how your supervisor wants to hear from you. Do they like the drop-in? Do they prefer an email? If you don’t know, ask. “I want to make sure you know how things are going, how would you like to receive updates? And what’s the best way to check with you if I have a question?”
If you’re on the receiving end of “Just handle it!” take a step back.
Is it you? Did you catch them at the wrong moment? Did they say they prefer email updates and you’ve dropped by three times? Are you trying to let them know your progress but making it sound like a question? Are you stalling because you’re not confident in your next steps?
When you took on the assignment, your supervisor was probably hoping you’d step up and be part of the team. They may also be nervous that they’ve delegated part of the work and that you won’t follow through and they’ll end up doing it anyway. Take an honest moment to ask yourself if you’re doing everything on your part to make this project a success.
Is it them? Does this happen to you frequently with this person? Are the directions so vague that you really don’t know what’s expected of you? Is this something new you don’t understand? If so, revisit step one. Find the right time and method to tell them your goal is to deliver what they need on time and to do so these are your questions. If they really can’t provide the guidance, at least you’re on the record.
If you’ve muddle through and haven’t gotten what you need, go for step three.
This can feel scary if you’re not sure you did a good job, even if you’re pretty certain you didn’t get what you needed. All the more reason to ask for a time to assess the project when it’s over. If it didn’t go well, say so. Just acknowledging the situation makes it easier to address.
“I’m not sure I delivered what you needed. I’ve given it some thought and I think we didn’t have a clear mutual understanding at the beginning. Next time, what if we tried this approach (describe)?”
It can also be hard to hear when we fell short of someone’s expectation. If your supervisor is telling you that you didn’t deliver what they needed, that’s the time to listen with your full attention.
How have you made happier three-o’clocks?