Fostering independence

The Gentle Art of Delegation

A guide for parents, teachers, and school leaders.

Aargh! Ever felt like you’re doing EVERYTHING? For EVERYONE else? Ever felt you’re alone with the load at home or at work? 

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘less is more’  – but man…there’s always more to do…? And somehow it tends to fall to YOU to do it…and that seems to be the default….

Family life, like school life, can be pretty reactive…At home we’ve got all sorts of established habits and patterns in our way of being. Plus we tend to do most of out functioning at home after work and school – so we tend to be less strategic, and more prone to being in our default modes.

At school, not unlike family life, there are frequent changes and disruptions, trips, concerts, rehearsals, illnesses, upsets. Competing and changing agendas. Like in a family, there’s a hierarchy as well as good and bad teamwork, good and bad relationships.

We have super-busy departments, super-busy teachers who are doing duties, extra curricular clubs, preparation, marking, meetings…And just like at home, the same people end up loading and unloading the dishwasher, metaphorically.  This is often particularly true of pastoral leads who have great teams of committed – (and some less committed) tutors…Nevertheless, heads of year, house masters and house mistresses quite often tend to do the bulk of the pastoral meetings and family liaison.

So what’s going on? We know that it would help us to have willing hands on deck. Why do things always end up falling back to us?

One of the first things to do before looking at practical ideas, it’s often a good idea to start reflecting on what we’re bringing to the dynamic. I have written before about my ‘Atlas’ complex…where at core, I know that it makes me feel strong and powerful to be at the hub of the wheel. I like doing things for other people.

Like many working parents, I often feel a sense of deficit – of guilt. My own Mum was a housewife and did EVERYTHING for us…all we were expected to do was work hard and bring the academic trophies home from school. So popping in to M&S on the way home to magic up a treat supper of Chicken Kievs and triple cooked chips is an easy win. A way of showing my love and contributing to the Quick-win economy… ‘Can’t buy me love’ Eh? Well my sparks card tells a different bloody story!

But truthfully, when I really do the work on myself, there’s a shadow side to this altruism. I like being at the centre of things, being the one to ‘save the day’. Who pulled a really good supper out of the bag. Who thought to go and get just the right X, Y, Z treat from the shops. Who brought order to chaos. Who let everyone else have a bit more time to relax…Who descaled the bathroom and…let there be light and order!

And yes – I recognise bringing the same dynamic to my leadership when I was a Head of Department, Pastoral Lead, and Deputy Head. I would concoct schemes of work, strategies, draft projects, write policies, deliver assemblies, pick up the phone, drop everything to console a distressed child, parent, colleague…Ta Daaa!

It was great When it was great. I felt magnificent. But burnout and illness were never far away. Many holidays were spent recuperating rather than refreshing from term. Most crucially, helping other people and rescuing situations doesn’t help you work WITH – truly WITH other people. I can remember bridling when my lovely shiny policies would be discussed…yes discussed at meetings. Sure I’d sashayed in, requesting feedback. What I really wanted was unconditional affirmation and the green light to go ahead. I didn’t REALLY want other people’s ideas – or to change my own!

The problem is, it’s self-sabotaging. ON good days we feel generous, and it feeds our hero narratives. On bad days, it fuels persecution and martyr narratives about other people’s neglect, laziness…BUT ALSO it grows disengagement and learned helplessness of other people in our teams and in our core relationships. Not globally – but definitely in some of the well worn tracks of our habits. 

So here I’m going to think about why delegation is such hard work – and what we can do about changing that dynamic.

Delegation – overarching points

  1. You have to think to and commit to the values behind delegating and make a very clear vision of why it matters, what the benefits will be. Because there are so many ways in which your plans to delegate have the potential to be derailed…and here’s why…
  2. Delegation involves strategy, innovation, teaching, creation of new ways of being. There are no shortcuts. You can’t just hand someone a meaningful task and say ‘just get on with it.’ Whether it’s folding the laundry for an 8 year old or empowering a form tutor to phone a parent to discuss difficult news. All these aspects mean it’s going against our slick but inaccurate ‘system 1’ thinking (Kahnemann – Thinking fast and slow). This is where we spend 90% of our time. The task of delegation requires focus, and system 2 ‘slow’ thinking which is  far harder work for our brains – which are lean, mean, pattern-making machines…and a little bit lazy… So it will always be easier to do what we’ve always done a la Barry Manilow… ‘I did it myyyyy wayyyyy’. Stopping. To really think, plan, communicate, moderately supervise, as opposed to micromanaging takes restraint and strategy. Lightening your load costs… and right here’s where you start paying. 
  3. It adjusts the power hierarchy.  In excellent teams, everyone pulls their weight, and feels their energies are contributing to a greater whole. This can feel like difficult emotional and political territory in the work-place. Because we are asking someone to take on an extra. Change is destabilising. Our brains are wary of change and defensive of encroachments on ‘safe’ territory, watch yourself, when you leap in and micromanage. Are you unconsciously giving off the message that fundamentally you know how to do it and don’t really trust them to do it. At root is there a part of you that – in a way is so fearful of them failing, that actually you don’t actually give them any room to succeed.
  4. Reverting to point 1. You need to marinade in the vision, the values behind sharing the load. This is what you should root the interactions around delegation in. In the home, if you are talking about the jobs as ‘chores’ NEVER use that word again. It is totally self-defeating. No one is ever going to get excited or feel the nobility of work and contribution in a ‘chore’. When our children feel they have played a real part, they have a stake in keeping the family ship afloat, that their efforts matter and are deeply appreciated, that is connecting and strengthening. It is developing their independence, and an upward spiral of your appreciation of them – and their appreciation of you. Until lockdown, our daughter never saw us work. It all happened behind the scenes. She never understood what made the magic of Amazon Prime happen. Equally we never saw her at work, or appreciated her ability to be self-motivated, organised, persistent. Sharing the work in a team gives everyone insight into their own and other people’s skills and contributions. Catching each other doing good works creates that uplift of energy far far more than occasional inspection and picking up on what’s wrong…It works in the home. And it works hugely well in managing and leading great teams at work. 
  5. When we delegate successfully, we empower another person to be able to learn, grow. We enable the team (which is a dynamic entity) to grow and shape itself in more agile ways around the constant and changing challenges of life in school / in the home. 
  6. Whether you DO delegate, or you DON’T delegate, you are giving out signals to those around you about your own capability and your feelings about their capability and capacities. Don’t assume it’s all a gift, never asking other people to contribute. If you never ask others for more, you never get to appreciate their generosity and cheer on their growth. Don’t assume there’s no one who has an interest in learning new things and shaping the contributions they are able to make. 
  7. Think very seriously about how involvement consolidates engagement and vital feelings of belonging. Are you busy nurturing passivity and disengagement? In the home, why does it feel such a chore to ask others and be ignored, or met with groans? What is it about the soil around those interactions  and habits that is so impoverished. We all like to feel connected. We all bask in meaningful praise and get the oxytocin and serotonin kick-backs from having done good things for those around us. 

I hope some of this might resonate with you this half term, and that you’re able to make some use of the spaciousness of this pause in our routines to think about changing the dynamics and reframing delegation…to look a little more under the bonnet about what else might be getting in the way. There’s so much more at stake than just time…it’s also about relationship.One of the most ground-breaking books I read when I was doing my psychoanalytic training was called ‘Lost in Familiar Places’. It took me longer than I should to get the pun in the title. But essentially it was unpacking the way in which people in family groups can get stuck in their relationships. Defined by past patterns and habits…some of which had been outgrown…Or the ways in which people can be lost in the patterns of their ways of being in the home – in their close relationships. I think particularly of the skill and power with which Alison Steadman depicted this in the electrifying first episode of the current TV series ‘Life’. I think also about these same patterns and scripts in the workplace…where you have a Spice Girls kind of team profile…The dynamic one, the grumpy one, the show-man one…the hero, the main-stay. The problem is in times of uncertainty and threat, we tend to stay with these patterns more and innovate and connect a lot less…So at work, it is more important we double down on this one.We all need safety, connection, and satisfaction – the latter meaning a growing sense of mastery, of growth. When our groups are static, it may seem safe…but it erodes connection and ultimately satisfaction. It ends up infantilising and stunting because it doesn’t have the scope to grow, like a plant that is outgrowing its pot. So if you’re busting your ass raising a lazy teen or an entitled toddler / demanding child…or if you’re burning yourself out keeping the status quo at work…take some time to reflect, grow the vision, and then take it out to grow the good in your connections with family, with colleagues. AS always, with love and gratitude,Emma..P.S. If you recognise some of the self-sabotaging elements I’m talking about, and would like coaching, or training for your teams, please get in touch…

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