How Leaders Deal with Work Overload

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

Most of us have felt overwhelmed with our workload at different times. One mistake leaders make dealing with this challenge is that they approach it as a manager would - trying to control and problem solve. They ask, “How do I work more efficiently? How can I manage my time to get all this done?”

On the other hand, a leader sees a challenging workload as an opportunity to engage their team. This means focusing on how to motivate and inspire the people on the team. And we know from decades of research about self-determination theory that humans have an innate need for autonomy, relatedness and competency.

And this brings me to the hugely important topic of delegation. While it isn’t a cure-all for workload issues, it gives people more:

1.Autonomy. Because, over time, they have more say in what they do or how they do it.

2.Relatedness. Because the process of delegating is a social one, if done well (and not just “throwing it over the wall”).

3.Competency. Because again, over time, people develop new knowledge and skills.

There’s a strong argument to be made that delegation done well fosters wellbeing. I invite you to check out my podcast episode with Dr. Senka Holzer on the scientific connection between meeting these three needs and wellbeing if you want to learn more about this.

But for some reason, smart, talented leaders sometimes fall into the under-delegation trap. Usually, it’s a voice in our head that’s telling us to hold on to the task. Here’s what it sounds like:

  • “I think I can do it better myself.”
  • “I don’t trust my team members enough.”
  • “I don’t have time to spend getting someone else up-to-speed.”
  • “I like doing this task.”
  • “I need to show my value-added to the team, that I’m pulling my weight
  • “Nobody has the skills needed.”

To overcome this trap, here’s a 6-step approach to help you delegate well.

1.Define what is possible to delegate. Make a list of all the tasks on your plate. Highlight the ones that only you can do and the ones that must be done by you personally. Consider delegating as many of the other tasks as you can.

2.Review your team members’ roles and capabilities. Reflect on each person’s goals as well as their strengths and development needs. And based on that…

3.Match delegation tasks to team members. Be careful not to undermine team members’ autonomy by making unilateral decisions. Once you are clear about what you’d like to delegate to whom and why, talk with them and ask for their agreement.

4.Analyze who needs what kind of support. Withyour team member’s agreement in hand, talk with them to learn what you can do to help them succeed with their new responsibility.

5.Create an action plan. Once you know what type of leadership your team member needs from you, co-create a concrete action plan to put your plans into practice.

6.“Bullet-proof” the action plan. Anticipate obstacles and together talk through what each of you will do to overcome them. For example, what will your team member do if an obstacle pops up the day after your weekly 1-to-1 meeting?

Side stepping the under-delegation trap is one way to develop the necessary skills and motivation in your team members, and it ultimately takes some of the load from you so that you won’t feel as overwhelmed by the size of your workload.

Thanks for reading this article. You can find a list of my other posts by clicking here. And I invite you to join people from 30 other countries around the world to the latest episodes of Humans At Work, my podcast that gives you fresh perspectives and actionable ideas for making working with other humans better for everyone.