I’m usually the one urging managers to delegate more. Too often, you get way into the weeds and cause all sorts of damage. There is one important exception to that rule. It’s complete abdication of your responsibility as a leader when you delegate prioritization to the people below you. Make the hard trade-offs to get to a true set of priorities. If you fail to prioritize, you fail to lead.
I learned this lesson early in my career when I had a manager who would fail in her responsibility to prioritize. To her, everything was critical and nothing could be sacrificed. In one particularly infuriating episode, she left five tasks on my colleague’s desk, each with a sticky note that said “urgent.” When my colleague asked which was most urgent so she could tackle the pile in the right order, the boss only said emphatically “they’re all urgent!” My colleague quit three weeks later.
Trade-offs Must Happen
Whether you like it or not, trade-offs must happen. Even if the trade-off is only in deciding which task to do first and which to do last. No matter how urgent, how many times you say it, or how menacing your tone, you can’t get someone to do two things at the same time.
Now, imagine that you refuse to prioritize. You just dump all the tasks onto your direct report’s lap with no direction about the relative importance of each. Prioritization is going to happen. Trade-offs are going to happen. Now, instead of you making those trade-offs, you’re leaving it to someone with less knowledge, less experience, and less of the big picture than if you had made the call yourself.
If you delegate prioritization, you fail in your responsibility as a leader.
Here’s an even starker example. I once worked with a retailer where poor coordination across the head office team was forcing trade-offs to be made at the store level. We were hearing such terrible feedback from the front-line that I decided to dump the contents of the weekly store mail-bag onto the board room table. What we saw left the executives feeling a little sheepish.
The “absolute must-do” list for each store was truly overwhelming. Tasks ranged from gargantuan (e.g., completely rearrange the store based on a new plan-o-gram) to the ridiculous (e.g., you have two weeks to have every full-time and part-time employee watch a 17-minute video on safe use of box cutters and sign to say they have watched). There were many, many in between.
If the store manager had chosen to complete all the tasks as prescribed by the mailbag, she would have far exceeded the labor budget for the week (having to bring in part-timers and pay their minimum rates). Alternatively, the manager could have chosen to ignore or postpone one or more of the tasks and face the consequences for “non-compliance.”
For the store managers, there was no good choice. And that was in no way a failing of the manager. It was a complete failing of the executive to coordinate activity and to make the tough calls about what was most important in the stores that week.
When you delegate the task of prioritizing work, you abdicate your responsibility as a leader. Make the tough calls about what must be done and what can wait. If you absolutely can’t delete something from the list, you need to at least communicate the order in which you want things done. Anything less just transfers the decision to someone less qualified to make it.