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We hear it all the time — if you want to be get promoted or be a more effective manager, you need to delegate.

But it’s not just control freaks who have trouble passing down assignments to the people on their team. It’s also people who would love to delegate some of their work, but who feel guilty loading more work onto people they already see working at maximum capacity.

So what’s a thoughtful — but busy — manager to do?

As a manager, you want to set your team up to succeed. You want them to feel invigorated by their work, not overloaded.

So when you see a team or individual that’s already got a lot on their plate, how can you add more to it in a way that won’t hurt their morale and still allows you to get the most important things done on schedule?

Here’s a strategy for making sure you can get work done without hurting your relationships with your team.


1. Clearly outline new priorities and create an action plan

When you really need to delegate something to a busy team, it’s usually because the new task is really important. However, to your team, as far as they know, what they are currently working on is the most important task.

Which is why new tasks being handed down to a busy team are often met with resistance at first. It can seem like you are distracting them from their goals and giving them assignments that aren’t a good use of their time.

So your first job, when you need to delegate to a busy team, is to clearly outline new priorities, create a timeline, and get a clear picture of how you expect each person to make progress towards the goal.

This means you need to work (either on your own or with your own leadership) to get details in order before you announce to your team.

You want to be able to give people clear answers and instructions, so that your message has as much power as possible. If your instructions for the new task are vague, people are likely to think it’s not important or not worth their time, and it won’t get done.


2. Talk to individuals about the new task and be available for check-ins

Your hardest workers are usually the least likely to come to you when they’re feeling overwhelmed, which is why you have to be proactive about connecting with people you know are carrying a heavy load.

When an already overloaded person gets a new assignment on top of everything else, the natural first reaction you’re trying to avoid as a manager is: “Do you not see how much I’m already doing? How do you expect me to handle this too?”

Frustration, desperation, annoyance, fatigue…these are all bad things, but they are likely to be the first reaction when you delegate a new task to an overloaded team.

So meet with people 1:1 to talk about the new plan first. You want to control the conversation and the reaction — which you can’t do if you just send out an all-team email or make a big announcement.

Instead, meet with the people you’ll be delegating to and set expectations. Here are some of the things you should be sure to cover in your conversation:

  • Tell them you understand how much they already have on their plate.
  • Give them the background information they need to understand the new priorities.
  • Give them a timeline for how long this new task will take
  • Explain what they’ll be expected to do and how success will be measured
  • Explain what will happen to what they’re currently working on — will it be given to someone else, or will it just be on hold? Will they be expected to make progress on that as well as working on the new assignment?

Leave time for people to express their feelings and ask questions. Don’t interrupt or try to explain that it actually won’t be that hard; the more you allow people to express themselves and feel heard, the faster they will be able to process the news and come around to a new idea.

If a person was really attached to what they were working on or doesn’t yet understand why you need them to shift priorities, you shouldn’t shut them down.

Make yourself available to them — send them emails to see how you can help throughout the project, and let them know that you are their resource for questions or help. You want them to see you as an ally, and not just as the person giving them more work.


3. Help your busiest people delegate

If you absolutely need a specific person (or people) to take on a task for you, but they are overloaded with urgent priorities, look for opportunities to delegate some of their work to someone else who could do the job just as well or benefit from the challenge of a new task.

Just because a person has been doing a task in the past doesn’t mean they are the only one who can do it in the future.

Suggest to them that they could delegate some of their tasks to other people; it’s helpful if you, as the manager, make this suggestion since the team member might not even know that’s an option.

It shows that you are prioritizing the new task over their other work and that you value their efforts. It reflects your understanding that they are already working really hard, on a lot, and that you don’t want to overload them any further.

This makes them much more likely to find ways to make the new project work, rather than just begrudgingly adding it to their to-do list or letting it fall behind because they are too busy.


4. If your first choice is already overloaded, pick someone else

An alternative to the previous option is to pick someone else entirely to delegate to if the person you would normally choose is already overworked with things that require their attention.

Giving different people opportunities is a good thing, and you want your people to feel that you trust them to handle important work. Even if it means you may need to spend a little extra time coaching or advising a second-pick person, the benefits of giving an assignment to someone else can be wide-ranging.


5. Be clear about end goals and dates

Especially when getting a new (potentially unwanted) assignment, it is easy to feel like you are being burdened with pointless work, or like feeling overwhelmed at work will never end.

Help people to stay positive by:

  • reminding them what their work is helping the team/company accomplish
  • giving them a clear roadmap for when the really busy time will be over

Even if you expect your team to be slammed for the next 6 months, people usually feel better if they know they are going to be working really hard but that there is an end date in sight.

Be sure to share your vision (or the company vision) for what all this work will mean. But bring it down to the personal level too — what will this person get from all this hard work? A bonus? A more stable startup? Experience that could lead to a promotion?

Make the meaning of this work tangible, so people can value their contribution and see where they are going.


The most important thing is communication and trust

The most valuable thing you can do to make delegating to a busy team work successfully is to connect with those people who you are delegating to.

Make it easy for them to engage with their work and do a great job, by helping them to understand why their work matters and how they fit into bigger picture goals.

Let them know how much you personally appreciate their hard work and value their contributions. Thank them for being superstars who take on huge loads and still produce awesome work.

Being overwhelmed at work is not a good feeling, so do your best to keep your delegating from turning into overwhelming, endless office angst. While you may still have a lot of work to give and not enough people to give it to, by managing expectations and distributing work effectively, you can reframe the extra work in a positive context and make it possible for everything to get done without destroying team morale.

Tags: delegating, leadership, management, productivity, team, trust,

2 Responses to “How to delegate to people who have too much to do already”

  1. David

    Oh, and don’t add to the workload of people who are already at their breaking point, or they will hate your guts forever, all of these excellent suggestions notwithstanding.

  2. M

    Also – if the person receiving the last minute task perceives that the task is less important or should not have been accepted given the current workload, they are much more likely to feel resentful and burnt out. The habit of ‘add on tasks’ should be broken. True emergencies are emergencies because they don’t happen every day. When you have employees already at their max workload, adding new tasks just because “the opportunity arose to jump in on this thing we thought we should do, but we haven’t really planned for it or created time for it, and it has to be done TODAY” is a sure way to break a good employee quickly.

    Use discretion. Maybe your team does not need to do everything there is to be done in the world, always. If it’s an opportunity but it’s not crucial, and your team would suffer from adding it, don’t. Your team will thank you for it, and they’ll work harder and more willingly on those true emergencies when they do arise.