by Elizabeth Grace Saunders
An internal battle rages inside many high performers who advance from positions where they thrived as individual contributors to positions that require them to depend on others. On the one hand, they pride themselves on knowing more than anyone else about their area and like feeling confident in their abilities to deliver exceptional work. On the other, the scope of their new responsibilities no longer makes keeping up on all the details possible —or even preferable.
If you find yourself taking on an increasing number of projects and/or people, the only way to regain a sense of control is to, paradoxically, let go of control: let other people help you. This requires facing fears like, “Maybe everything won’t be done the way that I would have done it.” Or “Maybe I’ll need to defer to someone else to answer a question instead of immediately knowing the answer myself.” It also requires redefining control from “knowing every detail off the top of my head” to “having the right level of big picture perspective to make informed decisions and the right systems in place so that I know when it’s time to check in with someone or when I need to take a next action.” And it requires redefining competence as “helping others to do great work,” instead of “doing great work all by myself.”
Here are four steps to put this mindset shift into action to achieve a greater sense of peace and control and empower those around you:
1. Carefully evaluate what only you can do. If you keep having responsibilities added to your position — such as more people to manage or more projects to oversee — you will hit overload unless you were previously working below capacity. (You can determine whether you have in fact reached that tipping point in “Stop Work Overload by Setting These Boundaries”.) To counterbalance these added time investments, you’ll need to carefully examine what only you can do by asking yourself these questions:
Could someone else complete this work to an acceptable level?
Could someone else do part of this project?
Could someone else do the initial draft so I only have to review and “tweak” it?
Is this work keeping me from my highest value activities?
2. Defer early and often. Deferring is different than delegating. Delegating is handing off your responsibilities; deferring incorporates delegating, but also involves passing activities on to another appropriate party before they ever hit your to-do list. This requires deflecting random tasks that really should fall in someone else’s court — even when you could help. For example, if someone asks you an IT question when there is a full-time IT department on call, kindly direct them to the Help Desk. Or if someone questions you about a project of which you’re no longer a member, refer them to someone currently on the team. Or if you’re invited to attend a meeting where you may offer some insight but other attendees could probably offer something similar, consider not going.
Don’t volunteer yourself for additional activities if you already can’t accomplish your must-do list. If you’re used to doing it all and pride yourself on being able to figure everything out, this will feel uncomfortable. You might even feel like you’re not being a team player. But in the end, deferring tasks others could do shows respect for others’ competency and lets you have the capacity to get done what only you can do — which is what your team really needs.
3. Create simple follow-up systems — and rely on them. When you have delegated or deferred items where you have accountability for results, having systems of follow up plays a critical role in your ability to rest assured that work will get done.
To make sure this happens, you need to have two items in place: 1) A consistent location to capture outstanding activities from your current projects. 2) A consistent routine for checking them.
A consistent location could be as simple as a Word or Excel document in Google Drive or a task list in Outlook for each member on your team. For a greater level of sophistication, you could use a task management system like Asana. In terms of when to check on these tasks, you could do so during a weekly planning time where you go through the status of all projects; during a recurring meeting with the responsible individual; or at the appropriate time before a deliverable is due. In order for you to trust the system, make sure that all of the delegated items go into your recording location and that these check-in times live in the appropriate places on your calendar.
4. Resist taking back control. Once you start to let go of control, inevitably there will be a time when something doesn’t get done in the way that you would prefer. Your gut reaction will lead you to blame yourself for letting go — “Why did I ever let anyone else do this?” – which typically manifests on the surface as anger toward or frustration with others. But instead of immediately putting the work back on your agenda, transform this situation into an opportunity for learning. First, evaluate whether you could do anything differently in the future. Second, help the people who did the work understand what they need to know to complete the work successfully next time. Often you don’t know what went wrong until you really dig in. Finally, remember to focus on your own highest-value work — instead of letting fear of letting go keep you from making the greatest contribution to your organization.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress, a time coach, the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training, and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress.