How to delegate and avoid miscommunication

· 4 min read
How to delegate and avoid miscommunication

Delegation is often understood as a way of avoiding the unwanted work by letting someone else do it. In reality, delegation is not only one of the main tools in the manager’s arsenal, but also a way to empower the team. People like challenging tasks, they want to help you build something big and great, and it’s a manager’s job to let them do it. It can be hard to let things go and trust others, especially if you have a bad experience of people doing the wrong thing.

Delegation often introduces problems that a manager has to learn to avoid. One of these problems is miscommunication. It happens all the time at work and home, and we’re used to it to some extent. Current tech allows us to communicate better, but it makes communicating well harder. While sometimes miscommunication is just annoying, sometimes it can have a dramatic effect on the project or work relationship leading to a conflict.

Avoid assumptions

We make a lot of assumptions about what others think and want. We assume that we can do the task without clarifying everything and checking if we have all the tools required. We believe that we know what is going to happen and we know what already happened. Most of all, we assume that we understood well what the other person said and that the other person understood us well too. Assumptions are the number one reason for miscommunication, and we need to make sure we do our best to avoid them.

You need to carefully review how you describe the task and identify any assumptions you make. The problem is that people don’t listen to what you are saying because they think they already know what you want to say and mean. Both the one setting the task and the one being assigned one should carefully scan the task for context. What are your assumptions about the prerequisites? How do you think the job would be performed? What are the qualities of the end result you are expecting? It’s better to write this down to make sure that both parties are on the same page.

Set clear expectations but don’t micromanage

When delegating a task, you trust a person to complete it successfully on his own. But if you will provide too little instructions the person you are delegating it might feel that you don’t know what you want. Same way, if you give too many instructions, he will think that you don’t trust him enough. Focus on the expected outcome and parts that are important to you.

Instructions will typically consist of five parts:

  • Why is this task important? What are we trying to achieve?
  • Is there a specific process that should be used? Are there any constraints and risks? What is the deadline?
  • What does an outcome look like?
  • When you need an update report? Upon completion or maybe after a certain milestone?
  • What is the impact of a failed task? What will happen if the deadline is missed?

Paraphrasing and summarising

Paraphrasing and summarising are two very powerful techniques you can use to ensure that both of the parties are understanding everything correctly. It is especially useful when the task is , and misunderstanding would lead to severe consequences. Use them when discussing the job you are delegating and to write everything down after the discussion.

Paraphrasing is repeating what was said by someone else in your own words, to improve the understanding of what the other person meant. When paraphrasing you can translate what others said to make it clear for an even broader audience. The paraphrase should be shorter than original statement, and typically the other person would respond by either agreeing with you or correcting you clarifying what was meant originally

Summarizing is creating an overview of the most important points in the conversation. A good summary can verify that people understand each other and that everything necessary is highlighted. While paraphrasing is often used during the discussion, a summary is usually created in written form afterward.

Everyone should have the context

Of course it’s impossible to do this with every task, otherwise, every organization would turn into a bureaucratic monster (which happens quite often, unfortunately). There are a lot of gaps in every task description, in every conversation. We rely on each other to fill in the gaps, and that’s the main reason for miscommunication. Success or failure of specific task and project itself lies in the ability of the team to fill in the gaps and interpret everything correctly.

You can call these gaps context. That’s why the team that has been working together on a project for a long time is much more effective than a team that was just created. Understanding of context by team members is not something you can control, it just builds over time, but failure to understand it is quite common. What you can control though is how you react to wrong interpretation and how hard you try to avoid it. In my experience teams that understand this problem and approach it with confidence and trust are most successful.

Upward delegation (Who’s got the monkey?)

Upward delegation is a term used for a task that is handed back to the manager. Have you ever had a situation when you asked someone to do a job only to hear “I can’t do this, help!”? It's one of the biggest challenges for managers, and  Harvard Business Review had a great article way back in 1999 about it, check it out. If something like this happens, make sure to step back and ask why they can’t do the job. It's not directly related to miscommunication, but it happens very often when delegating tasks, so I just wanted to mention it.

Collaboration is the only way we can accomplish big goals and communication is a big part of it and probably one of the most complex. By avoiding common pitfalls, you can make your team more effective and happy and ensure that your project is progressing well.