Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Where Work Goes During a Leave of Absence

Actions to take: When tasks need to be temporarily distributed to others, start by delegating down. Give the work to employees whose routine work is less complex than the work being delegated. Only take on the work yourself as a last resort. Resist the false belief that taking on all the work yourself makes you a team player.

I had a part time job at the Inter-Library Loan Department when I was an undergraduate in college. One summer while I was working, the person responsible for international loan requests took a 3-week vacation. I was asked to cover that aspect of the work while she was gone. 

That decision would be considered insane in some work environments. Some managers and HR professionals will tell you that giving a fulltime person's duties to a part-time college kid is not only irresponsible, but illegal. They would say that it required me to do work outside my pay grade and that I had a case to sue for higher pay. This kind of thinking takes a good idea (don't exploit employees) and swings the pendulum so far in the other direction that it crashes through the wall of the clock.

When someone takes a leave of absence, their work should be delegated down wherever possible. Distribute the work to employees at a lower level of responsibility than the individual in question.  Anything that cannot be delegated down should be delegated laterally (i.e. to peers at the same level). Work should be passed up to the boss only as a last resort. 

I know that this advice sounds like something right out of the "soul-crushing dictatorial manager" playbook. Hang with me for a minute. I think I can convince you why everyone wins with this strategy.

Modern theory of work satisfaction holds that 3 things need to be present for someone to feel that their jobs have meaning: 

  1. Autonomy (do I control my work?)
  2. Complexity (am I getting new challenges?)
  3. Effort-reward connection (is my work recognized?)
Proper delegation maintains and reinforces these three elements. You maintain the effort-reward connection by choosing what to delegate to whom based on their past successes: "You have done such excellent work with your detail-oriented tasks. I'm wondering if you would be interested in taking on this new task, which requires a great eye for detail." You maintain complexity by delegating down rather than up or sideways: "This new task will stretch your abilities a little and help grow your skills." Finally, you maintain autonomy by making it an honest question: "It's totally up to you whether you take on this new work."

For your delegation to be successful, you must be completely genuine about these three elements. The employee has to truly believe that there will be no downside if they choose not to accept, that the new task will be an interesting challenge, and that you are asking them in particular because their past successes relate to the new task. In the opening anecdote, I was thrilled to be given this work. I knew that it meant my efforts were valued. It was a great bullet to add to my resume. And I felt that it really was a question (not a demand) when my boss asked if I'd like to take on the work. 

If you know how to delegate following these rules, then delegating down is to everyone's benefit. The employee wins. They will feel that their work is respected and be excited for the opportunity to try something new. You win. You successfully help your employees expand their skills (a primary purpose of your job), and you are not burning out by taking on every burden yourself.

And the organization wins. The cold hard fact is that, to the organization, some work is more valuable than other work. Bosses get paid more than employees, which means the boss-level tasks come before employee-level tasks. If you delegate work up to yourself, you won't do a good job at that work. Why? Because you've got other, more valuable work that needs doing. You'll do the absent employee's work quickly, which is to say sloppily, so that you can get back to your own work. If you do prioritize your employee's work over yours, you are doing a disservice to your organization. To stick with examples from the library world, it just doesn't make any sense for the branch manager to spend hours doing routine check-in and shelving.

When an employee takes a leave of absence, hard-working, kind managers will instinctually put the work on themselves. You want to be a team player. It feels dictatorial to push it onto others. It seems honorable to take on the burden. This thinking is, frankly, delusional. Your job is not to be a superhero that fixes everything. Your job is to figure out the most effective way to get the work done. When I say that work should be passed to the boss only as a last resort, keep in mind that we are talking about a workplace where the boss is already working as hard as everyone else on the team. We are talking about a workplace where there is constant communication and transparency in both directions between the boss and employees.

In that kind of workplace, people will respect the manager who delegates effectively. They'll roll their eyes at the manager who thinks they need to take on all the extra work themselves.

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