Delegating when you’re not in charge

Delegating when you’re in charge is easy. Well. Actually. Doing it well isn’t easy. But if there are people who report to you, it is expected that you’ll ask them to do things.

It’s much trickier when you don’t have the magical “line management authority”. So here are four things that will help you get things off your desk.


1. Build good relationships
People will help if they like you, understand you and trust you. Every minute you spend investing in growing your network within your organisation will be worth it.

When you have a strong network, you’ll have a pool of people to ask: “I really need some space to get [this important stuff] done. Could you help by doing [this other thing] for me?”

Much better to say this to someone who knows you.

2. Identify the best person for the job
Would anyone you know really LIKE to do the thing you need to delegate? Because it’s something they’re really interested in? Or because they have really useful knowledge or perspective on the issue? Or because it would be a good development opportunity for them?

Would anyone you know be really GOOD at the job that needs doing? Perhaps even better than you?

People are more likely to help with something that’s right in their wheelhouse.

3. Suggest an alternative to whoever made the request
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to do this for you. Wouldn’t Jane be better? She knows so much more about this than me.”

Some obvious caveats. If Jane is overloaded already and you know it, don’t be mean. And your boss may just respond by saying “Perhaps. But I’m asking you to do it.” In which case you may lose this one. But if it wasn’t your direct boss asking, they might well turn their sights elsewhere.

4. Be willing to be “confidently vulnerable”
By this I mean, don’t be afraid to be honest and say that you can’t get it all done.

“Look. I’ve got several big things on already and I just don’t think I can get this done properly on the timescale that you need.”

If it’s your boss asking this should lead to a meaningful conversation about priorities. (If your boss is a good one they should initiate it. If not you’ll have to press for it.) Set out what’s on your plate. Suggest the priorities as you see them and why. This might change her mind. Or she might say “No. [This] IS more important than [that] I’m afraid. Do [this] first and come back to [that] later.” Although you may not have succeeded in delegating the task away from you, you’ve rebalanced your workload in another way.

If it’s not your boss asking you can suggest an alternate person for them to ask, or a different deadline to the one they requested.

Perhaps deflecting is a better word than delegating in these situations.

But it’s the only way to do less urgent work. So you can do more important work.

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