Want To Delegate Better? Try a Total Responsibility Transfer

UPDATED: November 30, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 17, 2023
Two business owners in a cafe sharing responsibilities with a total responsibility transfer

You’ve heard you can’t do it all, but you sure do still try. Delegating is a bit of an art form, one that takes practice and persistence, boundaries and motivation. When it goes well, all is right in work-life balance. When it doesn’t, it can feel like one more disaster on your plate to handle.

Emily Oster, economist, Brown University professor and author of popular newsletter ParentData, recently published a newsletter on total responsibility transfer, or TRT. It’s a term she credits to author Thomas Phelan, who found that if we are going to delegate, we need to delegate completely and totally. Whether we are giving our partner a task on our plate that’s just too much, or asking another colleague to take over a project, we can’t have our hand in parts of it after that transfer. 

Oster uses the concept of meal planning to elaborate on this term that can apply in the boardroom and the laundry room alike. “If you cook dinner for the family but do not plan it, that’s awesome, but it is not the same as having done the entire task,” she writes. “Total responsibility transfer refers to the concept that if someone is going to take over a task, they must take over all of the parts of it. When we think about allocating tasks across family members, we must think about the whole task.” 

She goes on to explain that the problem comes in when the original delegator isn’t so great at giving away the responsibility or task, or thinks the second person isn’t doing it right. She has a fix for that. Here’s how to become an expert delegator in all facets of life, for stress relief and business optimization.

A total responsibility transfer requires you to set boundaries 

If your partner takes over feeding the kids or your associate takes on a client you’d previously managed for you, discussing the job requirements is a must. “What if I TRT dinner and my partner just serves cereal every time, and I think kids need to eat vegetables? Or what if I TRT bedtime to the grandparents and they let my kids stay up until midnight watching television?” Oster writes. Her fix? Talk about it. “This isn’t a reason not to TRT. It’s an argument for establishing some of your family’s most important boundaries in advance.”

Be open to their fresh perspectives

If you delegate something, you have to accept that someone will not do it the same way you do. But what if that’s a great thing? “Avoid falling prey to rigid beliefs or agendas. An open-minded approach, free of preconceived notions, ensures that the tasks delegated are embraced with vigor and fresh perspective rather than limiting to your own methods and ideas,” says Darrin Murriner, CEO of Cloverleaf, an automated coaching technology company. 

Don’t delegate something that you are going to have to micromanage anyway

Ruth Furman, a marketing consultant in Las Vegas, says that as her business grew, she had to “force” herself to delegate more. “I regularly hire help for specific tasks and have a vendor who excels working with my key clients on marketing projects.” But this has meant a learning curve on determining when to say “yes” and do it herself, and when to say “yes” and delegate, knowing that she’ll have to oversee lots of details of the project. 

“What has been an epic fail and a learning opportunity over the last year or so was saying ‘yes’ to projects that required my attention when I was not personally available to oversee things,” she says. “Self-awareness and conversations with others helped me realize my limitations and also my opportunities.”

Be around for check-ins

Delegating doesn’t mean wiping your hands of the task. Instead, you have to continue to be around for support to ensure the project is completed well. Ashley Rudolph is a former tech executive-turned-business consultant and coach. She helps companies achieve profitability by scaling their existing talent, processes and tooling, including helping middle managers successfully navigate challenging workplace dynamics. 

“Don’t delegate and disappear,” she says. “Ever wonder why your team didn’t complete something exactly the way you wanted it whenever you just made a request and waited until the deadline to check in? You have an opportunity to invest your time and expertise and help them be successful.” She shares an example of this when she delegated to a team member who ended up having “second thoughts about moving forward” due to a challenge with a stakeholder. 

“That check-in served as a meaningful turning point for us. I listened to her concerns but I used that check-in as an opportunity to point her back to the goals, reiterate that I was confident that she was the right person to do the task, and reassured her that what she was planning to do would address their concerns,” Rudolph says. “If I hadn’t planned to check in with her and just waited for the end result, the process would not have been revamped and released to the team, and we would not have had a clear way to communicate feedback and concerns from customers and internal teams back to the product team.”

Acknowledge that delegating can cause some feelings

According to David Finkel, co-author of Scale: Seven Proven Principles to Grow Your Business and Get Your Life Back, one of the most difficult parts of delegating is the emotional attachment to control.

“You feel discomfort with letting go, and you may have experienced a letdown in the past that helped solidify your feelings about delegation,” he told Inc. But the emotional weight of not delegating often stems from past experiences of not delegating to the right people. 

You might even feel guilty about delegating. In a Harvard Business Review article written by Dina Denham Smith, executive coach and CEO of Cognitas, guilt can often play a role in the emotional toll of delegating.

“More recently, however, guilt about adding more work to a team member’s to-do list has been the primary obstacle voiced by the leaders I coach.”

Older research even shows that your ability to delegate might be linked to your level of emotional intelligence.

Noticing and feeling each of your emotions around delegating, and channeling that gut instinct, can help you see ways that delegating is and isn’t helping. It can also show you how to do it differently.

How to be a better delegator? Ask yourself these three questions first

Allison Miller, CEO and founder of summer camp program Happy Camper Live, asks herself three key questions for delegating appropriately in her position:

  1. Should I be handling the task personally? 
  2. Is there a better-suited team member? 
  3. Is it the best use of their time? 

This approach ensures efficient resource allocation, empowers her team and allows her to focus on high-impact activities, maintaining a healthy work-life balance and driving company success, she says. By taking a few moments to check in with yourself, your emotions and the answers to these questions, you can become an expert—and better balanced—delegator.

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