When it comes to delegation most of us have heard the old saying “if you need something done, give it to a busy person.” It turns out if we believe this, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and burning out good people. So how should we approach delegation? Well the answer may be found in the following equation:
= Time Pressure x Task Switching
“Too much to do and not enough time” is one of the most often cited stressors in organizations today and the reason why understanding each variable in this equation is so important. This perception of extreme busyness has created valid challenges for managers when delegating work (where do you go when everyone is maxed out?), and for employees assessing reasonable workloads (how do you keep delivering when already feeling overwhelmed?).
However, in today’s organizations time pressure is often non-negotiable, and simultaneously executing on multiple competing priorities is not only a cultural norm, but it’s also the expectation. Let’s focus on how to use this Delegation Capacity equation best.
Starting with the first variable, Time Pressure. We’ve all been there, yet another urgent request lands on our desk. With the deadline imminent and the expectations high, we push late into the night to complete the request. After reviewing and rechecking we feel (deceivingly) confident that it is a job well done, so we submit, just making the deadline.
Days later we re-read, or worse, our boss knocks on our door to share that what seemed like great work only 48 hours ago, is unclear, filled with mistakes, and simply doesn’t live up to our real potential. Frustration reigns all around in this no-win situation.
This scenario does not surprise Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School who has been studying the consequences of time pressure on performance for the past decade. Her discoveries should seriously influence how we think about delegation.
She has found that when people are busy and under challenging time constraints to deliver, they doget more work done. Hence the belief ‘if you need it done, give it to the busy person.’ However, contrary to popular belief, the quality of work goes down, so less significant work will is achieved under time pressure. Exactly the scenario described above.
Research out of the Netherlands sheds light on how time pressure impacts quality. First, as deadlines get closer, fewer alternatives and options get considered in the brainstorming phase. Second, the decision-making process relies on the “first come, first served” thinking bias. Although the first idea may not have been the best, most creative or strategic, we move forward with it because it was the most readily available and perhaps easiest to execute on. Third, our available working memory (or cognitive capacity), decreases as anxiety increases about meeting the deadline leaving us less able to critically and accurately review the material. We miss information and errors that are right in front of our eyes (in psychological circles this is called inattentional blindness).
If you have ever been late for an important off-site meeting and driven right past your exit (even if you have looked directly at the sign!), you will know exactly what I mean.
To be clear, some pressure does help us focus, but too much time pressure overrides our best abilities. Understanding this keeps us from making some common mistakes.
As the “delegator” we mistakenly think that applying pressure by reinforcing the urgency and our high expectations will help people work better under tight time constraints, but in reality, we are having exactly the opposite impact.
As the “delegatee” we may think we’ll do our best work in that “eleventh hour,” but this is also wrong. Time pressure has a deleterious impact on the quality of work. And yet, this is only part of the puzzle.
The second variable is Task switching, which is a cognitive function
that consists of shifting attention between one task and another. When it comes to
delegation capacity, yes, some people can handle more task switching and yes,
experience and expertise (and a great productivity App), may help people manage
competing priorities. However, it is
inarguable that at a cognitive level,
our brain has limits to how much task switching it can processes (and this
is further impacted and constrained by increasing time pressure). Investigating task switching helps us answer
the question – how busy is too busy?
To best understand if the next delegated task will be the tipping point between effective busyness and ineffective overwhelm, let me use a cooking example. As a novice cook (novice by choice as cooking is my least favorite thing to do), I have found success with recipes that have multiple steps that can be done in discrete succession. And yet, my latest attempt was a miserable failure as it required extreme multitasking with sauces to simmer, pastry to be rolled and fillings to be mixed nearly simultaneously (and add on that I was also trying to complete this article between simmering’s and it was simply a recipe for a disaster!).
There are three elements
that impact task switching performance in delegation decisions:
Task Volume. At some point, too many is too much!
Task Connection. Related tasks are
easier to switch between. For example, it is simpler to focus on making my
sauces and rolling my pastry because they are linked tasks compared to making
that same sauce while trying to finish this article as they are unrelated and
require different types of cognitive processing.
Task Completion. If the tasks can be
done in successive order to completion, we’ll have more cognitive capacity to
focus on the quality of work. Therefore, if I complete the recipe from start to
finish and then move to writing the article, I will have more cognitive capacity
for each. In theory, the quality of each should go up, though not the case for
my phyllo pastries!
The delegation capacity equation is both
applicable and informative when considering how much people can tolerate before
their performance suffers because even highest performers have limits. So if we
need to delegate to an already busy person (or say yes to a boss and still
deliver great work), then below are a few approaches that set everyone up for
success even in challenging, pressure filled situations.
If you are the Delegator
some ideas that create space for your people to do their best work:
Consolidate the tasks
that you delegate. Put like tasks with like.
The less “task switching” you create, the more processing capacity they
will have available. Keep process tasks,
creative tasks, reflective-based tasks together as much as possible.
Block distractions. Task switching isn’t just moving from one
required task to the next, but also managing the distractions that come with meetings,
answering email, knocks on the door, client visits, etc. If possible, under tight time pressure support
your people by blocking as many distractions as possible allowing them to
Chances are you are feeling the pressure also, and you now need to depend on others to meet your deadlines. This is challenging so you must remind
yourself that everyone has limits and under pressure, these are even narrower.
When you are providing support, having an expectation of “excellence” in their
delivery is both attainable and sustainable, but under pressure, it is unfair
and dangerous to expect “perfection.”
If you are the Delegatee
If you are the recipient of the
delegation, here are some things to consider to ensure you can do your best
Ask for help. Working under pressure and
working on multiple projects means you will miss things. Ask for “fresh eye” reviewers. Ask for people to let you focus. Asking for
help is not a weakness, it shows you are committed to doing great work.
Know your limits and clarify expectations. If you are asked to complete a project but don’t feel you are able
to give it the time it needs, be honest and
solution oriented. Lay out all of
your current deliverables for your manager as they may not know all that you
have on the go. By
striking the right balance, you appear eager and capable, while giving your manager
the opportunity to make an informed decision to give the project to someone
else, give you an extended deadline, or reassign your other work.
Manage your thinking and
When we have too much to do and not enough time we tend to go into
crisis mode. Take both a mental and emotional
pause. Breathe and ask yourself, how you
can approach this as a challenge to learn and grow, versus a crisis to try to
get through. You may not be able to
change the pressure, but you can control your thinking about the situation.
If you want things done, busy people will get them done. If you want busy people to do great work, help manage the pressure because even the busiest and best performers need this, along with other simple things (like, you know, sleep!).
Perhaps the delegation myth isn’t fully busted; however, understanding capacity and tools to create it will allow everyone to make more strategic delegation decisions.
I recently spoke at a conference where the theme was “Learning to Fail in the Spirit of Innovation.” In preparation for my talk, the senior team shared that they aspired to create a high-trust, highly collaborative environment to enable people to take risks without being afraid to fail. Unfortunately, that was not currently the case. As a leadership strategist, I have found that there is a strong connection between failure and forgiveness.
Weeks later with approximately 500 people in the room, I tested the potential of this connection. I asked the audience to please stand up if, in the spirit of innovation, anyone had ever felt wronged by a colleague at work. Examples could have included someone had taking credit for their work, inappropriately blaming them for a mistake, circumventing them in the decision-making process, questioning their integrity, or wrongly accusing them of acting with self-serving intentions and motivations.
As you may have guessed, everyone in the audience was standing. I then asked how many of them had fully addressed, let go and forgiven their colleagues for these wrong doings? There were squeamish, quiet laughs in the audience.
Making mistakes and conflict among colleagues are both inevitable and required in the process of innovation. However, what is spoken of less often is how we respond to each. Withholding forgiveness has a far-reaching ripple effect, starting with those involved and out to the organization as a whole. Complicating matters, most colleagues depend on one another so holding a grudge and commiserating while letting frustrations fester only serves to drain energy, increase negativity and draw out a difficult situation. Ultimately, the quality and quantity of innovative results are lost because no one is willing to risk failure in that environment; the cost is far too high.
Many organizations are quick to talk about the concept of failure yet miss that the impact of failure on humans is an emotional one. Acknowledging that is the first step. The second step is practicing it. Below are some strategic and productive practices to support forgiveness, repair relationships, restore trust, helping people feel safe enough to take risks and learn from their failings.
1. Practice Holding onto Forgiveness versus Holding onto Resentment.
There is a saying: “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The research on resentment is clear. Not only does it consume valuable time and productivity, but it also taxes your emotional and mental health. For example, there are strong connections to cardiovascular implications, such as increased blood pressure. Other studies have shown that the increased stress of perceived injustice can compromise your immune system, sleep and pain tolerance. While the other person may have wronged you, the only damage is to yourself by holding onto the bitterness.
Alternatively, you can choose to forgive. This doesn’t mean you condone or accept the actions of the other person. Instead, you make a conscious choice that after you have addressed it with that person, independent of the outcome of that conversation, whether they apologize or not, changed or not, you make a choice to hold onto forgiveness instead of being pulled into the negative hold of resentment. If you are looking to positively participate in a “fail and learn” culture and contribute to a happier and healthier workplace, this is an essential skill. The first person that forgiveness impacts is the forgiver, so hold onto that freedom.
2. Practice Holding the Person Accountable versus Holding the Transgressions Against Them.
Forgiveness and accountability are not dependent on one another, however, when paired are a very powerful couple. Outside of your home life, you spend the greatest amount of time at work. Your coworkers are going to make mistakes, feelings will be hurt, and both sides will feel misunderstood at times. To manage this, don’t lower your expectations, instead clarify them to establish accountability.
You can set behavioral parameters and agreements on how things will be handled next time if a similar situation arises. Increase touchpoint meetings to monitor accountability and be open to adjusting to changing requirements. Innovation means new, and anytime people are doing something new they are bound to do it imperfectly. Holding someone accountable catalyzes learning, forgiving failure enables innovation.
3. Practice Focusing on the Future versus Staying Stuck in the Past.
Forgiveness is a complicated concept, often misunderstood and more often said, but not genuinely given. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they forgive, but then hold an internal grudge over someone’s head for weeks, months or even years at a time. As a result, emotional residue builds, and distrust keeps them in the past. Forgiveness is not the same as trusting someone. Forgiveness is free while trust must be earned.You can’t move the needle on trust when withholding forgiveness keeps you stuck in the past.
In the age of innovation and disruption, it is easy to talk about failure. It takes courage to practice it, and even more, it takes courage to forgive it.
This article was originally published on Thrive Global on April 17, 2018: https://www.thriveglobal.com/stories/27619-does-your-company-need-to-replace-fail-with-forgive
How to check if the protector bias is holding women back in your company
After six years of working for a mining company, Joanne was considering
leaving. It wasn’t due to a lack of
support or the hostility of working in a male-dominated industry. Instead, she
wanted to quit because her performance reviews were too good.
Knowing there were things she needed to learn, she was open with Paul, her leader, asking for performance feedback. During their one-on-ones, Paul praised Joanne’s passion and drive. Instead of actionable, specific feedback, he offered to reduce her workload to alleviate the pressure. The problem was, Joanne didn’t need less work, she needed the feedback not only to learn and grow but to gain exposure and credibility with the senior team and evolve in the company. Without feedback, she felt stunted in her development. Unfortunately, research suggests she’s correct.
When she told Paul that she felt underused, Paul was
surprised. He didn’t believe Joanne was
less competent than her male counterparts. In fact, he viewed her as a high
potential. However, he knew that Joanne
was taking care of a sick parent.
Although she had a support network at home that allowed her to be
present and focused at work, he buffered her from critical feedback because he
didn’t want to hurt or overwhelm her. His justification was simple: he was only
trying to help.
the surface, it appears Paul is a supportive, empathetic leader. Unfortunately,
Paul’s underlying assumption that Joanne needed to be protected was turning out
to be more detrimental than helpful.
Women in the Workplace Report,
a comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America, shows women receive as much as 20% less specific and
developmentally focused feedback to help them improve performance and
address potential career derailers vs. their male counterparts. These findings
are reinforced by Shelley
Correll and Caroline Simard’s research.
After reviewing 200+ performance
reviews, they found women consistently receive vague feedback both in terms of praise and constructive direction.
Paul was falling into a common bias towards
women: the “Protector Bias,” or better known in psychological circles as
the benevolent bias. He was demonstrating excessive concern for Joanne’s
welfare, casting her as weak, less able to handle pressure and in need of his
protection (Glick et
Unlike overt sexism, the protector bias appears
in the form of excessive praise and kindness, especially in male-dominated
industries. What’s less obvious (but
more dangerous) is that when it comes to developmental feedback, promotions,
challenging projects and high-pressure roles, women are often overlooked by
these same managers. While these male leaders often have good intentions,
the protector bias can damage women’s careers.
How does this fly under the radar?
First, the protector
bias is hard to identify because it doesn’tseem discriminatory. To determine if the protector bias
is holding women back in your organization, look for indicators in direct
conversations with women, discussions
about women and written performance
reviews. Are women being highly and
generally praised for their performance but getting less performance-specific
feedback? Look for generalities like “we
love her work ethic” or “people love working with her.” Though nice sentiments, they don’t provide
actionable performance feedback to drive growth. Specific feedback could include: “find
opportunities to attend regional meetings and share your division’s goals and
priorities to aid in buy-in alignment.”
hard-to-detect bias can be far more detrimental than overt discrimination. In a 2007 study, researchers investigated the impact of
benevolent sexism versus overt sexism on women’s performance. They found
benevolent sexism more negatively impacted women’s performance, increased their
self-doubt, and eroded confidence. These cues of women needing more direction,
assistance and protection were picked up by others, further undermining women’s
competence, confidence and increased the chance of achievements and ability being
overlooked when promotions and challenging opportunities arose.
Finally, it’s hard to
address because the “offender” feels like they’re helping women, not holding
them back. Most
men would say they believe women arejust as capable as men. Andrea Kramer, the author of “Breaking through Bias” found that only 12% of men think
gender bias is a problem in their organization, yet looking at the disparity in
pay, promotions, and female executive leaders, the problem is vastly
research shows that women have a second layer
of pressure that men don’t. Women must fight harder for status, are
under-represented, have smaller networks with less support, and must “prove”
themselves in a still-patriarchal business environment.
If feedback is expressed differently for men than women, a check-in is
Paul needs to consider if providing “kind” feedback is a
pattern with just Joanne (the only woman in his group) or with all his direct
Ask these three questions to determine whether the Protector Bias is
holding women back in your company when it comes to giving feedback:
Is it for
you? Are you being too
“kind” with feedback because you don’t want to look bad, hurt the relationship,
or have employees dislike you? If so, you’re
missing opportunities with your female employees and all your potential higher
performers. Constructive, development-focused
feedback is key to professional growth and competence.
Is it for her? You don’t want to hurt her feelings, or worry
that she won’t be able to handle the feedback?
Do you want to “protect” her? If
so, you’ll limit your female employees’ growth and/or retention of high
If a male colleague were standing in front of you, would you feel
the same apprehension in giving feedback? If there’s any hesitation in your answer, pay
A Strategy for Paul. Paul should consciously shift his
mindset and think about the specifics.
Before his next conversation with Joanne, he needs to consider how
specific feedback could help her grow. He should also realize that a lack of
information will hold Joanne back and imply that she’s less competent than her
A strategy for Joanne. Joanne needs to continue pushing for
specific feedback. After the next
conversation with Paul, she needs to continue to focus on her performance and
keep the intrusive self-doubts at bay.
Joanne needs to trust herself, continue to build her awareness, and
elicit feedback from others as well, taking her development and career
evolution in her own hands as much as possible.
As Dr. Kristen Jones shared in her article Stop protecting Women from Challenging Work, “All people like to be treated with courtesy and respect. But it does mean that some behaviors — those that are patronizing, overly protective, and unsolicited — can be harmful”. Don’t let kindness impair a career.