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Make Time for the Work That Matters

give you task

How smart knowledge workers delegate tasks—or eliminate them altogether

What does it take to become more productive? Based on their recent research, the authors propose a process to help knowledge workers increase their productivity. This process involves thinking consciously about how you spend your time, deciding which tasks matter most to you and your organization, and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest. These tasks can then be sorted into quick kills (things you can stop doing now, without any negative effects), off-load opportunities (work that can be delegated with minimal effort), and long-term redesign (work that needs to be re-conceived or restructured). Once these low-priority tasks are disposed of, the newly freed-up time can be spent focusing on more-important work.

More hours in the day. It’s one thing everyone wants, and yet it’s impossible to attain. But what if you could free up significant time—maybe as much as 20% of your workday—to focus on the responsibilities that really matter?

We’ve spent the past three years studying how knowledge workers can become more productive and found that the answer is simple: Eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with value-added ones. Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time—an average of 41%—on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others. So why do they keep doing them? Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done. We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept.

We believe there’s a way forward, however. Knowledge workers can make themselves more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organizations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest. We tried this intervention with 15 executives at different companies, and they were able to dramatically reduce their involvement in low-value tasks: They cut desk work by an average of six hours a week and meeting time by an average of two hours a week. And the benefits were clear. For example, when Lotta Laitinen, a manager at If, a Scandinavian insurance company, jettisoned meetings and administrative tasks in order to spend more time supporting her team, it led to a 5% increase in sales by her unit over a three-week period.

While not everyone in our study was quite that successful, the results still astounded us. By simply asking knowledge workers to rethink and shift the balance of their work, we were able to help them free up nearly a fifth of their time—an average of one full day a week—and focus on more worthwhile tasks with the hours they saved.

Why It’s So Hard

Knowledge workers present a real challenge to managers. The work they do is difficult to observe (since a lot of it happens inside their heads), and the quality of it is frequently subjective. A manager may suspect that an employee is spending her time inefficiently but be hard-pressed to diagnose the problem, let alone come up with a solution.

We interviewed 45 knowledge workers in 39 companies across eight industries in the United States and Europe to see how they spent their days. We found that even the most dedicated and impressive performers devoted large amounts of time to tedious, non-value-added activities such as desk work and “managing across” the organization (for example, meetings with people in other departments). These are tasks that the knowledge workers themselves rated as offering little personal utility and low value to the company.

There are many reasons why this happens. Most of us feel entangled in a web of commitments from which it can be painful to extricate ourselves: We worry that we’re letting our colleagues or employers down if we stop doing certain tasks. “I want to appear busy and productive—the company values team players,” one participant observed. Also, those less important items on our to-do lists are not entirely without benefit. Making progress on any task—even an inessential one—increases our feelings of engagement and satisfaction, research has shown. And although meetings are widely derided as a waste of time, they offer opportunities to socialize and connect with coworkers. “I actually quite look forward to face-to-face meetings,” one respondent told us. “A call is more efficient, but it’s a cold, lifeless medium.”

The Work That Knowledge Workers Do

Our research shows that desk-based work and “managing across” take up two-thirds of knowledge workers’ time, on average…

…and yet those tasks were rated as most easily off-loaded and tiresome.

Armed with this knowledge, study participants dropped, delegated, outsourced, or postponed low-value tasks to free up time for more important work.

Organizations share some of the blame for less-than-optimal productivity. Cost-cutting has been prevalent over the past decade, and knowledge workers, like most employees, have had to take on some low-value tasks—such as making travel arrangements—that distract them from more important work. Even though business confidence is rebounding, many companies are hesitant to add back resources, particularly administrative ones. What’s more, increasingly complicated regulatory environments and tighter control systems in many industries have contributed to risk-averse corporate cultures that discourage senior people from ceding work to less seasoned colleagues. The consequences are predictable: “My team is understaffed and underskilled, so my calendar is a nightmare and I get pulled into many more meetings than I should,” one study subject reported. Another commented, “I face the constraint of the working capacity of the people I delegate to.”

Some companies do try to help their knowledge workers focus on the value-added parts of their job. For example, one of us (Jordan Cohen) helped Pfizer create a service called pfizerWorks, which allows employees to outsource less important tasks. We’ve also seen corporate initiatives that ban e-mail on Fridays, put time limits on meetings, and forbid internal PowerPoint presentations. But it’s very difficult to change institutional norms, and when knowledge workers don’t buy in to such top-down directives, they find creative ways to resist or game the system, which only makes matters worse. We propose a sensible middle ground: judicious, self-directed interventions supported by management that help knowledge workers help themselves.

What Workers Can Do

Our process, a variant of the classic Start/Stop/Continue exercise, is designed to help you make small but significant changes to your day-to-day work schedule. We facilitated this exercise with the 15 executives mentioned above, and they achieved some remarkable results.

Identify low-value tasks.

Using this self-assessment, look at all your daily activities and decide which ones are (a) not that important to either you or your firm and (b) relatively easy to drop, delegate, or outsource. Our research suggests that at least one-quarter of a typical knowledge worker’s activities fall into both categories, so you should aim to find up to 10 hours of time per week. The participants in our study pinpointed a range of expendable tasks. Lotta Laitinen, the manager at If, quickly identified several meetings and routine administrative tasks she could dispense with. Shantanu Kumar, CEO of a small technology company in London, realized he was too involved in project planning details, while Vincent Bryant, a manager at GDF SUEZ Energy Services, was surprised to see how much time he was wasting in sorting documents.

Decide whether to drop, delegate, or redesign.

Sort the low-value tasks into three categories: quick kills (things you can stop doing now with no negative effects), off-load opportunities (tasks that can be delegated with minimal effort), and long-term redesign (work that needs to be restructured or overhauled). Our study participants found that this step forced them to reflect carefully on their real contributions to their respective organizations. “I took a step back and asked myself, ‘Should I be doing this in the first place? Can my subordinate do it? Is he up to it?’” recalls Johann Barchechath, a manager at BNP Paribas. “This helped me figure out what was valuable for the bank versus what was valuable for me—and what we simply shouldn’t have been doing at all.” Another participant noted, “I realized that the big change I should make is to say no up-front to low-value tasks and not commit myself in the first place.”

“I realized that the big change I should make is to say no up-front to low-value tasks and not commit myself in the first place.”

Off-load tasks.

We heard from many participants that delegation was initially the most challenging part—but ultimately very rewarding. One participant said he couldn’t stop worrying about the tasks he had reassigned, while another told us he had trouble remembering “to push, prod, and chase.” Barchechath observed, “I learned about the importance of timing in delegating something—it is possible to delegate too early.”

This article also appears in:

give you task

HBR Guide to Being More Productive

Most participants eventually overcame those stumbling blocks. They delegated from 2% to 20% of their work with no decline in their productivity or their team’s. “I overestimated my subordinate’s capability at first, but it got easier after a while, and even having a partially done piece of work created energy for me,” Barchechath said. A bonus was that junior employees benefited from getting more involved. “[She] told me several times that she really appreciated it,” he added. Vincent Bryant decided to off-load tasks to a virtual personal assistant and says that although he was concerned about getting up to speed with the service, “it was seamless.”

Allocate freed-up time.

The goal, of course, is to be not just efficient but effective. So the next step is to determine how to best make use of the time you’ve saved. Write down two or three things you should be doing but aren’t, and then keep a log to assess whether you’re using your time more effectively. Some of our study participants were able to go home a bit earlier to enjoy their families (which probably made them happier and more productive the next day). Some unfortunately reported that their time was immediately swallowed up by unforeseen events: “I cleared my in-box and found myself firefighting.”

give you task

Teams at Work: Make Time for the Work that Matters (with PowerPoint)

But more than half reclaimed the extra hours to do better work. “For me the most useful part was identifying the important things I don’t get time for usually,” Kumar said. “I stopped spending time with my project planning tool and instead focused on strategic activities, such as the product road map.” Laitinen used her freed-up schedule to listen in on client calls, observe her top salespeople, and coach her employees one-on-one. The result was that stunning three-week sales jump of 5%, with the biggest increases coming from below-average performers. A questionnaire showed that employee responses to the experiment were positive, and Laitinen found that she missed nothing by dropping some of her work. “The first week was really stressful, because I had to do so much planning, but by the middle of the test period, I was more relaxed, and I was satisfied when I went home every day.”

Commit to your plan.

Although this process is entirely self-directed, it’s crucial to share your plan with a boss, colleague, or mentor. Explain which activities you are getting out of and why. And agree to discuss what you’ve achieved in a few weeks’ time. Without this step, it’s all too easy to slide back into bad habits. Many of our participants found that their managers were helpful and supportive. Laitinen’s boss, Sven Kärnekull suggested people to whom she could delegate her work. Other participants discovered that simply voicing the commitment to another person helped them follow through. With relatively little effort and no management directive, the small intervention we propose can significantly boost productivity among knowledge workers. Such shifts are not always easy, of course. “It’s hard to make these changes without the discipline of someone standing over you,” one of our study participants remarked. But all agreed that the exercise was a useful “forcing mechanism” to help them become more efficient, effective, and engaged employees and managers. To do the same, you don’t have to redesign any parts of an organization, reengineer a work process, or transform a business model. All you have to do is ask the right questions and act on the answers. After all, if you’re a knowledge worker, isn’t using your judgment what you were hired for?

give you task

Partner Center

What to Do If Employer Gives You No Tasks & You Are Salaried?

Summary of Being a Good Manager

Difference between competencies, tasks, and qualities, guidelines for how to do a performance evaluation.

The beauty of being a salaried employee is that you aren't in a position where your employer or your boss has to constantly monitor you to ensure you're doing your job. When you're salaried, you have a degree of latitude and autonomy to determine your tasks and when to do them so that you meet the goals your employer gives you. Some employees may not know what to do, however, when a boss is not assigning work.

Salary Basis

Salaried employees who are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act classified as such because they are in a category of jobs that require them to exercise independent judgment in the majority of their job functions. Under the FLSA, the administrative, professional and executive classification rules require that employees in these kinds of salaried positions exercise independent judgment because their work is tied to the company's management.

Fact Sheet no. 17C from the U.S. Department of Labor containing the rules for the FLSA exemption for administrative employees states: "The employee’s primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance." As a salaried, exempt employee, you earn a fixed amount of pay and you are counted on to use your discretion and judgment in the performance of your job duties.

Job Description

Employers provide both applicants and employees with job descriptions. A job description isn't an exhaustive list of the tasks and responsibilities your employer expects you to do; it's an outline of what the company anticipates you'll do to fulfill the job you agreed to when you were hired, according to Management Study Guide . Therefore, if your employer doesn't assign you any tasks, it's likely that you are the one who is expected to determine what tasks are necessary to fulfill your job responsibilities.

Job Responsibilities

Salaried employees typically have general responsibilities and they decide how much time they'll devote to the job, based on their independent judgment and discretion. For example, one of the responsibilities of a retail store department manager includes motivating the sales staff. The actual tasks required to motivate sales staff include holding staff meetings to inform employees of new products, evaluating employee performance and carrying out disciplinary actions for employees whose workplace behavior doesn't conform to company policy. As a salaried employee, your employer doesn't provide you with a laundry list of tasks – you're trusted to know what your tasks should be.

Taking Initiative

Independent judgment, discretion and initiative are professional traits that salaried employees have – you are hired to meet the company goals without prodding or specific instructions from your employer. One of the reasons you were hired as a salaried worker is because the company believed you demonstrated enough initiative during the hiring process to show that you're capable of working independently with out step-by-step guidance.

Asking for Direction

If you're in a salaried position and you feel neglected or overlooked, or if you feel you need more direction from your boss, speak up. Ask for guidance. Explain that although you are capable of handling the work, you need direction to determine organizational priorities and how you can best accomplish those priorities. This also is an excellent way to demonstrate initiative, even if your boss doesn't hand you a list of tasks to complete. Your responsibilities as a salaried employee are far more than fulfilling your responsibilities that are outlined on the job description. The ability to ask for guidance is proof that you know the basic expectations of a salaried employee.

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How to go from salary exempt to hourly nonexempt, professional values in business, what is the meaning of a salaried employee, an example of job autonomy, how to rate your boss, labor laws involving salary vs. hourly employees, bullet points for a performance appraisal of mediocre performance, suing if you're forced to do job duties that are not in your job description, can you work 60 hours & not get paid overtime, most popular.

How to give assignments to team members

Last updated on: March 1, 2023

The project has been divided into milestones, goals and objectives broken into tasks, and now it’s time to assign them. But as you open the project management platform, you’re faced with the unflattering process of wording the tasks, and choosing whom to assign them to.

Well, in this article, we offer advice on how to make that jumbled first moment a little clearer. There are actionable tips, learning the difference between allocating and delegating tasks, and suggested criteria on how to choose the best person for the job.

How to give assignments - cover

For a more precise overview, here’s a table of contents:

Table of Contents

How do you assign employees tasks?

We normally think that assigning tasks is a time-consuming process that focuses on clearing out task lists to keep the project going. However, task assignment should actually be a more employee-oriented process that requires additional dedication and effort, which yields incredible results. But what do we mean by that?

Properly assigned tasks push your employees, projects, and the overall company forward. Here’s how.

The list could go on, but we’ll stop there for now.

Of course, such long-term benefits don’t come without some proverbial blood and sweat in the planning stage. Let’s take a look at the general ideas on assigning employee tasks, and specific steps you can take.

Motivation comes from knowing the bigger picture

When we talk about the bigger picture in project management, we talk about each team member’s task affecting their peer’s down the line. Since all tasks are usually small pieces of the puzzle, it helps to remind employees how their work contributes. For example:

It comes as no surprise that people work better and are more productive, when they know that their work has an impact on the company level.

And so, when you assign tasks, try to emphasize how they fit in the bigger picture. Simply saying: “ You doing X will help with Y and Z ” and how it reflects on the project as a whole will let an employee know that the task they were assigned is important.

Get your employees excited to commit

Telling people about the bigger picture and showing them what’s possible can only get them so far. It’s enough to ignite the initial spark, but for them to fully commit to the task, you need to define what that task entails.

They should be able to picture how to go about the work, what skills to use, and how to reach the desired result. The clearer the instructions, the more motivated they will be to work.

Simply put, give directions on how the task should be done, and make sure they understand. You can’t read each other’s minds, so it’s important everyone is on the same page.

Ask for task transparency

One of the best practices a company can employ is transparency among coworkers.

This is achieved by having everyone input their tasks for the day in a timesheet. The purpose of timesheets is to get an accurate idea of what everyone is working on at any given time.

When people know who works on what tasks, it’s easier for them to know if a person is available or busy, how far along they are with a task, etc.

So, when you give assignments to employees, label them with deadlines. Alternatively, you can ask for employees’ assessments on how long the work would take them, and use those timeframes.

clocked-in activity screenshot in Team Dashboard

Source: Clockify team timesheet

Timesheets are a great way to keep an eye on tasks and the people doing them. You get to:

💡 If your employees are insecure about keeping public records of their tasks, here are a few resources that can help:

Keep a crystal clear timeframe

While we’re discussing timesheets and deadline transparency, it’s important to mention that the times you set for task completions need to be clear-cut.

As we’ve mentioned, the safest way to assign deadlines is to consult the employees. They are better at assessing how long it will take them due to the tasks’ difficulty, overall deadlines, the standards that need to be met, and the skill required to complete it.

When they get a say in how long they should be doing an assignment, people tend to feel more accountable for the whole process. They will do their best to finish in time, since they actively participated in setting the deadline.

Set very clear expectations

Assigning a task should always include your (the supervisor’s) expectations pointed out. For example:

If you ask a designer to make some drafts for a logo pitch, you must specify the kind of quality you’re looking for. Explain whether you are looking for some sketches and drafts for a brainstorming meeting, or if you want clean, presentable pieces to show.


Assigning the task using the above questions, you help the designer understand how much effort precisely they need to invest. They become more motivated with clear instructions, as they know what is expected of them. There’s no fear of having their work criticized for something that wasn’t communicated in the beginning. And on your end, it prevents breached deadlines or subpar results.

Avoid creating dependency by being less involved

It’s not unusual for employees to ask their supervisors for their opinion on a certain task, or their performance.

The problem arises when a supervisor makes themselves too involved with the process. When they feel like the project might fall apart if they don’t have their eyes on every moving part all of the time. And when you have, say, 20 people waiting for that person’s approval, advice, or consultation, the workflow runs into a gridlock.

And wait time is wasted time.

Plus, people lose motivation, patience, and grow frustrated, as they could be doing other things.

So, learn not to jump in every time people call for your aid. Assign reliable people who can address smaller issues, while you handle the big picture. Learn how to expend your own energy where it is needed more.

For example – making a pitch presentation for potential investors keeps getting put off because one person needs you to check a client email they want to send, another wants your signature on a form, and the third wants to ask something about employee feedback that’s coming up.

In order to not be stretched thin, and have your time wasted on menial tasks, here’s where you can start:

How to mitigate the risk of being over-involved when assigning

Which means that, by matching the right people with the right tasks, your involvement will be minimal. Take time to carefully choose who gets to do what. What is the point of assigning tasks if they can’t be done without you?

How important are certain aspects of your leadership role? Are you absolutely necessary in every meeting, or during every call? Which tasks need your approval, and which ones can be approved by someone under you?

Rank these items on a scale of 0 to 10, based on their importance to you and the project. Top priority tasks should get your undivided attention. And what can be delegated, should be.

Your energy and time are needed on a much broader scale. The best way to spot if you’re wasting time being too involved is to look at your schedule. Identify how much time you’ve spent on low-priority items, and assess which issues could’ve been solved without you.

Step in only when absolutely necessary. You are in charge of things getting done on time, by people most qualified for assigned tasks. Determine what your priorities are for each project, and concern yourself only with those issues, unless there is a risk of breaching a deadline.

If you know your employees (or team members) well enough, then you should be able to single out those who are more dependable and ready to take on a little more responsibilities. Write out the reasons how they could help by getting involved on low-priority items instead of you. When the time comes, rally them and present them with the idea, keeping in mind that this solution helps push the project forward. When authority is delegated to several people, there’s fewer chances of a hold-up in the workflow.

This also falls into the realm of task delegation , which we’ll get into later.

How do you decide what tasks to assign to which employees?

1. assign based on priority.

Naturally, some tasks will be more important than others. When you break down a project into tasks , spend some time assessing their priority level.

High-priority tasks should be the first on your list to allocate. Whether it’s because they’re time-sensitive, or require more effort and dedication.

Low priority tasks can be allocated as fillers to the first available person.

2. Assign based on employee availability

Another factor to consider when assigning tasks is who is available at the moment.

As the project moves along, new tasks will be added. You will have to allocate new work, but odds are you won’t always be able to pick who you want. Especially if a deadline is approaching, the person with the smallest workload should be your first choice.

Overloading an already busy individual just because they’re more skilled or you have faith in them the most puts an unnecessary strain on them. It’s cause for frustration, poorer results, and decreased productivity.

And as we’ve mentioned, if you have a timesheet with an overview of all the tasks and employees working on them, it’ll be much easier to spot who is free and who isn’t.

3. Assign based on employee skill level

High-priority tasks should go to employees with more experience in a given field or skill. However, you should occasionally give such tasks to other employees as well, to help them grow and become just as dependable. Giving people challenging tasks that can boost their experience is essential to productivity and morale.

Not to mention you get to have multiple high-skilled employees.

Low-priority tasks can be assigned to anyone, despite their experience level. They’re a good opportunity to practice, pick up new skills, or get smaller tasks out of the way to make room for more important ones.

4. Assign based on preference

Last, but not the least, preference can also play a big part in how you assign tasks.

It’s a given that some employees will prefer certain tasks over others. So it could be good to assign tasks at a meeting with the team. As you discuss priorities, deadlines, and availability, ask them which tasks they would like to work on.

If someone shows interest in a specific type of work, they should (with some consideration), be allowed to take it. After all, people are more productive when they’re assigned to something they find new or exciting.

Note: Apply this rule with caution. Letting people do only the tasks they want can stunt their career growth. Getting out of our comfort zones and occasionally doing tasks that we don’t like is how we develop and learn. So, don’t forget to document assignments as you hand them out, to spot these potential issues early on.

Allocating vs delegating tasks

While semantically similar words, delegation and allocation in terms of tasks are two different things.

When you allocate tasks , you are assigning tasks without giving the employees much authority, challenge, or room to grow. It includes you keeping all of the responsibility – writing out the tasks, making deadlines, providing resources, tools, etc. These are usually recurring tasks that can become repetitive.

When you delegate tasks , you allow for some of that responsibility to fizzle out from your fingers. All you think about are the objectives, while letting the employees figure out the details and means to get there.

However, that doesn’t mean delegation is right and the allocation is wrong.

Task allocation has its own place. It is just as important, as a lot of tasks come down to repeated processes that are still vital to the project progress. Task delegation is just a good opportunity for employees to learn, challenge themselves, and assess their skills and performance.

When should you allocate tasks?

Management and BizDev consultant Artem Albul shared his concept on task assignment, which he dubbed an “algorithm”. He emphasized how these criteria are useful only and only when you wish that employees perform the tasks based on your guidelines and instructions (aka allocation).

Here is how Albul broke down the algorithm:

algorithm - assignments

Source: Artem Albul, TWA Consulting

As we can see, task allocation, while the more “controlling” of the two, also gives in-depth instructions and asks for confirmation on task clarity. A lot of it comes down to everyone being on the same page, leaving little to no room for misinterpretation (but also creative freedom).

How should you allocate tasks?

With all that we’ve mentioned in the previous section, here’s how your task allotment could look like, step by step.

Detail out the goals, objectives, and some individual tasks (not all, be careful not to start micromanaging). Place the most important deadlines.

It’s important to know what tasks need to be done faster/better, to properly allocate your resources and manpower from the start.

Assign team leaders (if you don’t have them), and alternatively, ask for their input on individual employees skills, for a more informed decision on who gets what.

Make a meeting with the team leads and go through the points above. Assign tasks according to each team’s availability, interest, and skill required to successfully push the project forward.

Whether it’s pushing deadlines, reassigning tasks, or shifting around resources. This is perfectly fine and expected, so long as it doesn’t happen on every task you’ve assigned. Then, it is an indicator of poor pre-planning.

Don’t forget to track the progress and make notes of important details that might help the next task allocation/delegation process. It’s also a useful piece of information for the employees on what they need to improve on.

Allocating tasks is somewhat more complicated than we want it to be. But, this kind of thorough research and preparation will make projects run more smoothly. Employees will also be more satisfied with their work, and there will be less hurdles as deadlines approach.

When should you delegate tasks?

Delegation is a great practice in trust for both the employer/supervisor and the employee. The employer learns how to give away some of their control over the process, while the employee learns how to take more accountability for their work.

This lets you focus on big-picture aspects of your job, since you deal less with assignments that are low-priority for you. You save time and energy, while helping others move up in their careers.

How do you effectively delegate tasks as a leader?

As we’ve mentioned, delegating includes more employee independence. There are some additional components which make this type of task assignment more appealing than allocation, with great opportunities for growth.

Focus on delegating objectives instead of actual tasks

When you delegate, you focus on the objective that needs to be done. You shouldn’t give employees a “color by numbers” instruction on how to complete a task.

Communicate clearly what the end result should be and what expectations you (or the higher-ups) have. Leave the means for reaching that end goal to the employees themselves. Because how you solve a task may be completely different to how they will. And that is perfectly fine, so long as the result is the one you are looking for.

Keep the objectives challenging

When the objectives you’re delegating are too easy, chances are the person will either procrastinate, or feel like you don’t trust them enough. And if they’re too difficult, they get frustrated, anxious, and begin to panic.

It’s a good idea to be aware of an employee’s skill level, so you can gauge how much challenge and responsibility they can take on. For them to be the most productive and achieve great results, they need to enter “the state of Flow”.

Graph - in flow

Source: Optimal Experience , M. Csikszentmihalyi

💡 We’ve discussed the state of Flow in more detail in an article on time organization.

Encourage discussion and feedback

Let employees voice their opinions on the topic.

They should ask anything about the task, the goals, or the overall impact their work will have on the later stages or others’ workflow. It means they are interested in the task, and getting involved.

And if they aren’t asking questions themselves, you can always nudge them into proactivity.

Questions like these help them feel valued, their efforts acknowledged, and let them know you care about the task and how well they perform. Just be careful not to overdo it, or you’ll start to look like a micromanager.

Give employees free rein, but offer support

Speaking of micromanaging, delegation means you let people problem-solve their way out on their own. There should be no reason for a manager to step in and control or supervise any step of the process, unless absolutely necessary.

However, what you should do is let them know you’re available for any advice should they feel stuck. Just because employees get authority on a certain task, and are left to their own devices, doesn’t mean the project has to suffer until they pull themselves up.

From time to time, ask them if they need anything from you, and make sure they know you’re there for any kind of support, consultation, or mediation. ANother good practice is to also give them additional learning opportunities – such as training, conferences, courses, etc.

Delegate objectives that move people forward

Choose assignments that boost the skills and employ all of their experiences, instead of something that simply needs to be done. For example:

Find out which skills your employees may want or need to develop, and then plan your delegations accordingly. You want them to complete the task while having learned something new at the same time.

How to choose who to delegate to

Paul Beesley, senior director and consultant at Beyond Theory proposed a nifty checklist for when you’re choosing an employee to delegate to. It’s meant to simplify and speed up the process.

To successfully complete the delegated task, your chosen employee needs:

S – the skill to perform and complete a task

T – the time to complete the task, and if needed, learn the required skill

A – the authority to handle everything concerning the task

R – the necessary level of responsibility

R – the recognition for successfully completing the task

This list is a set of important criteria that should be covered when you consider who to assign to a specific task. However, depending on your niche, type of service, company size and the project at hand, the criteria are likely to change. And it should accommodate your needs, not the other way around.

Common task delegation mistakes to avoid

With all being said, there are some common mistakes managers and employers make, sometimes without even realizing it.

There could be more mistakes, especially for every different field and industry. If at all possible, identify the most common ones, made either by you or your peers. Note down all the instances where certain tasks weren’t up to par, and see what you could have changed in your assignment process to fix it. Maybe there wasn’t enough time or resources, you were unclear, or the employee wasn’t ready for such responsibility. Use the same procedure in all future task delegations. It’s the only way to learn and make the process quicker.

To conclude

Task assignment should be a very careful, thought-out process. It’s not just about reaching milestones in time. It’s about helping employees learn new skills, feel more satisfied with their position in the company, strengthen the trust between you and them, and ultimately help you refocus on the big picture.

By following the advice we’ve gathered, you will be on the right track to make some effective, healthy long-term changes to your company.

✉️ Have you found these tips helpful? Is there something we could have covered in more detail? What are your experiences with assigning tasks?

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A peer "gives" me tasks in public and makes it look like I work for him

Summary: I have a manager "Alan". "Bob" is not my manager but during meetings he often gives me tasks and talks about his participation in my work. I feel uncomfortable but my manager doesn't know what to do.

I have a weekly meeting during which I've been asked to just listen in for situational awareness. The project leader, "Alan," keeps it short and simple. I regularly report on my progress to Alan at a separate meeting, plus whenever I'm asked by him to do so.

During the last several meetings, someone else involved in the project (call them "Bob"), who is neither the project lead, nor someone I report to, calls on me to discuss my efforts during the past week. He'll then jump in to discuss how he's supporting my work (which he's not, so it is a total lie) and then creates tasks assigns me tasks in front of everyone, giving him the appearance of being my supervisor.

This is not the first time Bob has done this. Two former project teammates had this happen to them (on other projects), and they didn't like it either. The first one left for unrelated reasons, and the second left the project due to Bob's behavior in general. Bob likes to make himself look like he's in charge, insinuate himself into situations, put himself between people's lines of communication to control projects and make himself the hub of everything. Bob has even tried to get between Alan and our customer. Bob's boss "Charlie", meanwhile, gives Bob a very long leash because Bob lets Charlie take credit, so Charlie is happy. Charlie is not my supervisor, nor Alan's.

I've talked to Alan, and while he understands and agrees, he's at a loss for what to do. I have a few ideas, and would prefer to stay on the project, but I don't want to make an uncomfortable situation worse.
How do you manage someone who passive-aggressively gets between people, makes themselves appear to be in charge, and lies/bullies to do it?

EDIT: The main difference here compared to another question is that in this case, the issue of third parties being present and involved further complicates the issue.

iwantmyphd's user avatar

10 Answers 10

You don't need to be confrontational here to handle things appropriately - just be matter of fact.

To "assigning tasks":

Bob, thanks for the suggestion. I'd encourage you to talk to [supervisor] if you need my help with something, as they can arrange my workload appropriately.

To taking credit for helping when he didn't do something:

Bob, thanks for offering your support. I was unaware of your involvement on this; would you mind letting Alan know exactly what you've been doing, so he can make sure we're not duplicating efforts?

These replies are the same whether they're to a class-A jerk, or to someone who unintentionally did these things - a person who did help with something that you were unaware of would get the same response, as would a person who suggested you do a task but who wasn't your supervisor even if they had good reasons for it.

The other people involved can read between the lines, and I'm sure you're not the only person who's had this issue with him; as long as your supervisor, and the Project lead, know what's going on, you'll be fine.

Joe's user avatar

I'm not sure why you don't just speak up and say "You don't really support that effort, in fact, I'm not sure why you are trying to assign tasks to me as you aren't my supervisor in anyway?"

You are an adult, you can ask direct, simple questions that establish yourself. You'll have to be ready to fight back a bit, because he'll definitely have a response when you try to break the leash he has on you. It'll get ugly because you are about to make him look bad, and he'll hate you for it.

Issel's user avatar

Since Bob has no authority over you or Alan, I'd suggest getting somewhat confrontational with Bob the next time they try to order you around. Nothing serious, just remind them of their place.

Thanks, Bob, for trying to be pro-active with task assignment, but Alan is my boss so I'll be taking my assignments from him.

You can also put Bob on the spot by asking, specifically, how he's been supportive to your efforts. Then begin to correct him when he starts making mistakes or lying.

Bob, since you've stated how much you've done in this project, why don't you give everyone an update on the process. ... Um, Bob, no, that's not correct. We've done this, not that, and we're XX% done with the project, not YY%.

This could be considered "passive aggressive", but I'd rather think of it as giving someone enough rope to hang them selves with . If Bob lies obviously enough, you might not even have to correct him as someone else will, and hopefully that will be someone with authority over Bob.

As I mentioned in a comment on the Question, Bob's behavior smells of narcissism . If he or she truly is this way, once someone starts correcting them, they will likely get mad and quickly, as their "authority" is being questioned. Any reasonable person seeing this would realize the anger is unnecessary and Bob would start losing respect. With a narcissist, the more they lose respect, the worse their behavior. I'm not saying to egg them into doing something so grossly wrong they lose their job, but you can definitely, and easily, get them to the point where they get talked to by Charlie for their unprofessional behavior. Just remain professional yourself. Also, make sure you aren't harassing them, just use facts and a straightforward manner.

Basically, this boils down to being assertive for yourself, but not aggressive. You don't have to take this kind of behavior. It borders on abuse and that's not appropriate in the workplace.

Michael Harvey's user avatar

If someone asks you to do something strange, they should feel like they asked something strange. I find asking clarifying questions about the request and appearing confused by it may convey your feeling. You should keep your conversation facts-based and direct, while attempting to clarify anything misleading.

Bob: Can you update the team on the work you have done? You: (raised eyebrows) Which part exactly? Bob: (Generic response indicating Bob is not familiar with what you are doing) You: Well, I've done thing #1 and thing #2. Detail detail detail. Does that answer your questions?

It's hard for Bob to take credit for your work if he isn't the one providing any detail, but if he tries anyway...

Bob: Yes, great job, I'll continuing to provide support on thing #1. You: I think we've got the bases covered right now, but I'm happy to reach out if I need any help.

Bob: Can you also do task #3? You: (raised eyebrows) I'm happy to do that if it's a priority. You: (asking Alan, your manager and project manager) Do you want me to do task #3 this week? I feel like we should prioritize these new tasks with what we've been working.

Underminer's user avatar

Be Prepared

I think Joe has a great answer, but you can push back a bit harder, I think. I would start out by printing out your org chart...the part that contains you, Alan, Bob, and Charlie. Then, I would print out a list of tasks & projects that Alan has assigned to you, and the people assigned to those projects.

The next time Bob tries to assert dominance, start writing down the meeting info on a pad of paper: the time, attendees, purpose, etc. After Bob "assigns" tasks to you, you can respond: "That's interesting, Bob. You see here, I have a list of tasks that Alan assigned to me, and I don't see your work items anywhere on that list. Hmm...let me consult my org chart. Then pull it out, make a little show of tracing the reporting lines, then say: 'Well that's funny. I only see one reporting line here, and it goes from me to Alan. I don't see any reporting lines from me to you. Do I not have the latest org chart?'"

When Bob starts to take credit for working on your project, you can say: "Well that's very interesting. These are the people that Alan assigned to work on this project, and this is the progress on it that I'm aware of. I didn't know you had free cycles to contribute, but I'll definitely let Charlie know. He will be excited to know you have spare bandwidth to work on some of his understaffed projects!"

Call The Bluff

Of course, if your company has more cooks than recipes to work on, then this is simply a consequence of being overstaffed. I've never worked in such a company before, so I don't know what to say then. If your company is like most, it is understaffed to varying degrees, and there is surely some manager near your team who would like to know that Bob has free cycles to help out on projects.

Remember those notes we took earlier? You need to follow up with two people. First, you need to talk to Alan's boss. Alan's job is to manage people. Alan's job is to protect his reports. Alan's job is to solve any problems that prevent his team from succeeding. He isn't doing his job, so you need to let his boss know that Alan is an ineffective manager. Bring the situation to their attention and say: "I like Alan, he's a nice guy, but he doesn't know how to manage this scenario. Another team is basically trying to usurp Alan's authority, and this reflects directly on you. If this gets out of hand, Bob is going to claim authority over your org. Alan could use some coaching in this situation."

Then wait to see if anything happens. If your skip level boss does nothing, then go to Bob's skip level boss. Let that person know that Bob has a lot of free time to help out on other team's projects, and you find it interesting that their org is over-staffed to that extent. You could casually mention some projects that you know are understaffed and dying for more folks, and just idly speculate whether any managers over there would be interested to hear about this slack in the team availability. If that doesn't spur some action, then it's time to look for another department or polish up your resume.

Lawnmower Man's user avatar

Two Sutras from a Veteran Guru.

-> World is never fair.

-> Rise up to the occasion or you will be trampled.

Coming to your issue, its is a leadership problem. The moment you told this to your manager he should have intervened.

Being a manager myself I can tell you one thing, the first and foremost duty of a manager is to keep the team and team dynamics healthy. Your manager should be ready to be a tortoise and you should give him a heads up when communication is gonna come his way.

Soft skills are very important. A very senior mentor of mine currently Vice President of a Company told me long back "You should learn how to say no". I was a very junior dev then.

Concerning your two issues.

When someone higher in ladder but not directly in your org lineup/chart gives you items/tasks it feels weird and its wrong, that it and there is no other expression. So there are 2 things that need to be answered here.

If Bob tries to assign you tasks if an environment where he is not the lead of a project you should calmly say "Please reach out to my manager. My team already has other items planned." This is a very normal communication and don't hesitate to say it, no need to be shy, no need to tell it privately.

If you feel someone is overstepping you should assertively say, "Talk to my manager", leave the word please.

Now Alan should be ready to handle communication and heat if required.

In my team, no one accepts any task without my knowledge. They just say "please reach out to my manager". When they come to me and say "Hey we need help with this task X, so can you please help us out and ask person A in your team to pick it up", I say "Explain this task X, how urgent is it and for what reason. If urgent I will see the best person fit and let you know who can help you out. You know we have our items planned, but if it looks urgent I will see what I can do."

No one can dictate anything to any member of my team and if required I am always ready to have a argument even with my own manager. I will tell you a line I told my manager's manager a couple of years ago in a meeting. " Someone random comes and tells something and you ask us to run after it, to pick items with no proper explanation or the urgency and it not even in my team's planning. I don't think thats correct. " He had a very hesitant smile and my expression was serious. With experience maturity in managing people comes.

Your manager should be present in that meeting, tell him to join. If Bob discusses your work then he is essentially reviewing your work. You should ask why is he discussing your work in that forum, say it out loud, no need to be shy. If he is saying he is supporting you or something you should raise the question, how was he involved. Explain then and there who worked on it and who helped. You manager should raise an objection that its neither the correct place nor the appropriate leadership to be discussing or reviewing his teams work and he finds it very inappropriate.

-> Your Manager should be Confident, Assertive and Ready to take on any communication and tackle it. Thats his job. This is exactly what I tell my team members, you do yours, I will do mine, you have my 200% support. They can always throw me into fire, no issues.

-> You should be Assertive and Confident. Remember your manager is your shield.

I am not sure if you ever witnessed anything of this nature but I have been in 1:1 discussions where I went to extent asking the other guy 'why does the company pay you'. It was a very heated discussion. No member of my team knows about it, they need not, its my job.

If you have bad manager change the team you don't have much option then, this is honest. Industry research says 80% of people changing teams do it because of their manager, either bad or incompetent.

Maximus Decimus Meridius's user avatar

While Joe's suggestion is quite good (telling Bob to go through OP's boss, Alan), this will only work if:

Otherwise, Alan may resent iwantmyphd passing the buck to him, even though s/he is right to do so - ensuring hierarchy and proper allocation of resources and work is the role of the higher ups, and anyone upsetting this does need to be reminded of their place in the organisation.

If Alan has no authority over Bob, then Alan needs to go to his boss and bring it to their attention. Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved if someone who has authority over Bob is willing to take action. Otherwise, the first thing iwantmyphd needs to figure out is why they are unwilling to act.

sfxedit's user avatar

So let me redefine the organigram here.

You have you, above you is Alan.

Bob is trying take undeserved control of you, and possibly Alan. Charlie, Bob's manager, takes credit for Bob's efforts in encroaching on others' authority and won't do a thing.

This organigram seems to lack a very important component: the person above Charlie. I would say the obvious answer is to go to the person above Charlie and explain the facts. If you feel like that person is too high up to handle such low hierarchy problems, then it would be worth it to do the following steps:

The latter might seem like a bad idea, but if you have gone to the higher ups and clearly stated that disruptive or outright abusive behaviour has happened, and nothing was done, it would be good for both you and Alan, together, to clearly, perhaps even somewhat brutally (accusing him in public, nothing physical) state that Bob is abusive.

Doing this without telling your hierarchy first would be a grave mistake, in every way, they will see you as the problem. Go to them first, see if they act. If they do, Bob will try to act like a victim of some cabal. Openly confront him when he does, and say that you will have to report the continuation of his lies and attitude. If they don't, you raise the stink you can and should.

Bullies are very good at acting like innocent victims whenever they're called out by one person, and also very good at threatening people when confronted, but it is a very different fashion if it happens with several people and in public. Abusers use secrecy and misdirection to deflect. Even with a very talented manipulator, being called out in front of everyone with clear accusations will not be easy.

For example:

Dealing with abusers in the workplace is particularly hard because they can always get away with murder as long as they can pass as problem handlers. And of course, what better problem handler than the one that creates the problems?

But it is not because they pass as problem handlers that they are. The best course of action for a bully that abuses his status is to not only put him back to his place in front of everyone, but also to request of him that he actually handle the problems he cannot. If he is the type to pretend to solve everyone's stuff and be the actual boss, pressuring him into taking a task he can't handle and then letting him bomb it shouldn't be too difficult.

Mahboi's user avatar

One trick that works surprisingly well is to ignore them.

You clearly don't like confrontation and won't do very well repeating something from the internet (it will probably go like the "ocean is out of shrimp" Seinfeld episode). It seems like everyone else already knows you don't take orders from Bob, and that Bob is just that way. I'm guessing you maybe do some of what Bob says, but not all -- so a policy of ignoring everything Bob says would be more clear to everyone else. Your boss knows you're not getting that extra help Bob brags about giving, so no problem being called lazy. Given the fact Bob's not going away (your boss apparently wasn't in his face with "can you refrain from giving orders to my employee, who's only there as an observer"), just letting him talk is the fastest way to get it over with. And there's no point making an enemy -- Bob clearly has some pull, and I'm guessing there's never any follow-up on whether you actually did those things. Let him talk without drawing things out.

It's a variation of not getting in the way of crazy people, which is what the "Bob fools no-one by acting like a big man" segment of your meeting seems to be. If you haven't, double-check with your boss if he wants you to do what Bob tells you in these meetings (if he says "yes", you have other problems).

The other way I mean to ignore this is to not worry about whatever benefit Bob gets from this, or why your group tolerates this nonsense. Think about all of the people who get paid way more than Bob for complete no-show jobs. And someone is wasting time in a meeting -- turns out Dilbert was right about meetings, time gets wasted sometimes. Basically, you have to deal with a jerk who has no power over you, for 10 minutes a week. Don't waste Sunday night stressing about how to respond.

The potential downside is when someone wants to know why you haven't been following Bob's orders; or why you get so little done, factoring in all of the help Bob gives you. In practice that tends not to happen -- they know that you've figured out it's not your job. But even if it does, it's better that it's not you complaining -- they've come to you and will bring up each subject. You get to stutter easy, obvious stuff like: "but I work for Alan", "I don't even understand why I'm being given work as an observer", "But Bob doesn't actually give me any help", "no" (in response to "but aren't people surprised when you don't do Bob's work?"), and "yes" (in response to "does Alan know about this?") Or at worst "I didn't know what to do when some guy I don't know at a meeting I'm barely supposed to be at starts giving me orders". Hard to argue with that.

Owen Reynolds's user avatar

The ray of light here is that Alan is not Charlie and can see what Bob is up to. Imagine working alongside Bob for Charlie! You would be well and truly sunk.

In addition to the fixes already suggested, I would recommend the "sorry folks, I've got to take this" spiel and leave the room whenever Bob starts to annoy you. The meeting will then move on to something els and things should be safe in about 5 minutes.

Deipatrous's user avatar

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Assign people to work on tasks

Typically, once tasks are entered into a schedule , people are assigned to work on them. After all, projects don’t get done by themselves.

In the Gantt Chart, go to the Resource Names column.

Assing resources image

If you don’t see the name of the person you want to assign, enter a new name.

If you don’t see any names in the list, then no one has been added to the project yet. Either enter a new name in the column, or add resources to your project before assigning them to work on tasks.

To add resources like equipment and materials, see Add and assign material resources to tasks .

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Assign a person part time to a task

Suppose you want to assign someone part time to a project. You can set how much time you want a person to spend with the Assign Resources box.

In the Gantt Chart, select the task.

Choose Resource > Assign Resources .

In the Assign Resources box, pick the resources to assign, and choose Assign . In the example below, Amy is the resource. By entering 50% in the Units box, she’s now assigned to work 50 percent on the “Build the fence” task. Bob is on the task as well, but because the Units column is blank, Bob is automatically assigned 100 percent to the task.

Assign resource dialog box

Tip:  Sometimes when you assign resources to a task, the duration or length of the task may change unexpectedly. If this happens, check the effort-driven setting of the task. Task or resource settings also could be causing unexpected scheduling changes. To check, look at all the scheduling factors that can impact the task .

Got a lot of people assigned to a task?

If you have a single task with a lot of people assigned, making changes in the Resource Names column may not work. This column can only handle 256 characters, and you may hit that limit if you have a lot of resources assigned to a task.

For tasks where you need a lot of resources assigned, it’s best to make your assignments, and make changes to those assignments, in the Task Information dialog box.

With the task selected, choose Task > Properties > Information .


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Resource tab on the Task Information dialog box

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How to Tackle Something You Have No Idea How to Do

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My career has been filled with daunting tasks.

I graduated with a degree in the all-too-general category of business, which didn’t exactly prepare me for any one specific industry. So, when I settled into a career with a healthcare technology company— knowing absolutely nothing about healthcare or technology—I was faced with a tough gig.

My boss would pull me into her office and rush through my next assignment: “Listen, I need you to reconcile our 10 biggest clients’ lists of providers with their billing before we switch to the new accounting software.”

I’d nod and take notes, but inside, my stomach was turning over with a mixture of fear and frustration. I don’t even know where to start , I’d scowl. How does she expect me to do this?

But the thing is, regardless of whether you know how to do something or not, it’s part of your job to make sure it gets done. You won’t always be able to get formal company training , and often, your boss won’t be able to guide you through the task step-by-step; it’s up to you to figure out how to see it through.

After a good deal of frustration, I eventually learned how to take that completely overwhelmed feeling and turn it into something productive. Here’s how.

1. Get Rid of Your Negative Outlook

When you’re tasked with something new and difficult, your first thought is likely, “I can’t do this.” I’ve been there. I’ve sat at my desk with my head in my hands, going through all the stages of an impossible project, from bewilderment (“There’s no way my boss really expects me to do this”) to denial (“This must have been a mistake—I don’t really have to do this”) to all-out refusal (“I’ll just tell my boss to give this project to someone else ”).

Eventually, though, you realize that you do, in fact, have to do it—and the sooner you get started, the better. So, kick the negativity, and try to approach the project with the attitude that you’re going to use the task to gain skills, make new connections, and prove to your boss that you’re up for anything.

2. Start With a Small Step

I’ve learned that the best first step for tackling a seemingly impossible project is to tackle a small portion of the task (and I mean a very, very, ridiculously minute detail).

For example, when I was tasked with the provider reconciliation project, my first step was simply hitting the send button on a conference call invite to one of my remote teammates to discuss the task. It wasn’t a critical meeting with any of the big players on the project, but it was locked in on my calendar, and it gave me a starting point.

Whether it’s creating the bare bones of a spreadsheet you’ll use or looking up the phone number of a contact you need to get in touch with, just start. It may seem insignificant at first, but by the end of the day, you’ll be further along than you’d be if you’d just kept telling yourself that you couldn’t do it.

3. Gather Information and Resources

Now that you’re committed, it’s time to dig in and face the reality of the situation: You may not have all the tools or knowledge you need to actually complete the project. But that’s OK—you just have to track them down.

Sometimes it’s as easy as finding a knowledgeable colleague and asking if he can help you with the task or if you can pick her brain to learn how to do it yourself. Other times, you’ll need to recruit an employee to contribute directly to the project or ask for an introduction to, say, someone in the accounting department to get insight into the billing system or a business analyst who can help you develop a report that will give you the information you need.

Whatever or whoever it is, reach out and start asking for what you need. Once you take the initiative, you’ll typically find that people are willing to help and resources are available. And leaning on that knowledge is a much better alternative than trying to do it all on your own.

4. Take a Whack at It

Soon, you’ll come to a point where there’s no more preparation (or procrastination) that you can do; you’ve tracked down resources, scheduled introductory meetings, and prepped your materials.

You may still feel insecure about leaping into an unfamiliar task , but while the threat of failure is looming, there’s nothing you can do except to go for it.

Really, there are only two things that can happen: Either everything will go as planned and you’ll have an accomplishment under your belt, or you won’t quite get it on the first try and can move on to step five.

5. Assess and Repeat

After you’ve made a first attempt, you have an even more valuable tool available to you: feedback from your boss and colleagues .

Once you’ve done something—anything—your teammates will be able to take a look at your progress so far and may be able to pinpoint where you went wrong or where you could approach the project or task differently.

Even if you stump the rest of the team and have to approach your boss with your less-than-stellar attempt, bringing something to your boss will show more initiative and drive to succeed than if you’d simply protested the project from the beginning. And likely, he or she will be able to point you in a new direction.

Being tasked with an unfamiliar project can be incredibly daunting, but when you approach it with a positive attitude and a well thought out strategy, it’s much more doable than you think. Take it from me.

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Keep track of your tasks on your computer or phone.


Step 1: Open Google Tasks

Tip: In Gmail spaces, you can create, assign, edit, complete, and delete group tasks .

Step 2: Create a task or list

Step 3: Reorder or hide tasks

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