Every year, Erika Anderson takes five weeks off from work.
As the CEO of Proteus International, a New York-based leadership consulting firm, she works long hours, writes blog posts and books and often takes client calls at all hours. When she’s on holiday, she tells her staff to leave her alone.
“I can’t be a machine,” Anderson says. It’s a lesson she—like many of us—didn’t always embrace.
In the 1990s, when Anderson started her business, she’d put in 80-hour weeks and rarely strayed far from her office. But over time, she realised that she needed more rest and wanted to spend more time with her kids. The problem: she couldn’t just leave—the company just wasn’t set up to run without her there. Anderson had to make a change in how she worked. She’d have to learn how to delegate.
'I can’t be a machine,' Anderson says. It’s a lesson she—like many of us—didn’t always embrace.
Many of us, especially in the US, seem to avoid days off like the plague. A 2015 survey by executive search firm Korn Ferry found that 67% of US executives had either postponed or cancelled vacation plans due to demands at work, while 57% said that they didn’t plan to use all of their allotted time off. As a new year starts, many Americans are lamenting the vacation days that went unused in 2016. That stands in contrast to countries like Austria, Germany and France, where workers get, and take, 30 or more days off each year.
Many of us know that taking time off helps recharge our batteries – and it’s also good for our health, reducing the risk of heart attack, for instance. Still, even if we wanted to take time off, many of us would have a hard time doing so. There are the usual reasons: we’re worried about losing our jobs and it’s hard to take time off when no one else is leaving. But, a big part of the no-vacation state of mind is that we don’t know how to keep our offices or teams running without us.
We like to believe that if we left, the place wouldn’t operate as efficiently
That’s by design. We slave away at work because we don’t want people to think that life can go on if we’re not there. “We like to believe that if we left, the place wouldn’t operate as efficiently,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
It’s all wrong without me
Many of us don’t take more vacation because we don’t know how to delegate. According to John Hunt, a London Business School professor, only 30% of managers think they delegate well, while only about 33% of managers are considered good delegators by their staff.
Why are we so bad at offloading work that can, and should, be done by others? Because we don’t want to do it. We believe, however misguided that belief may be, that the things we work on are better because of our work, says Pfeffer. And it’s not just at work—it’s part of our nature to some extent. One study found, for example, that you’ll bet more on a casino game if you’re the one rolling the dice.
“It’s the illusion of control,” says Pfeffer. “We think that everything we’re involved in is better because of us.”
We think that everything we’re involved in is better because of us
That’s particularly true in the US. Americans and American companies put a much greater emphasis on individual efforts, whereas in Europe and Canada (which are considered social democracies) the collective is typically considered more important to success than any individual person.
Europeans also seem to have a different value set. They “work to live,” where Americans “live to work,” says Rick Lash, a Toronto-based senior client partner at Korn Ferry. In the US, individual achievements are reinforced at a young age and are regularly celebrated throughout life, he says. “We want to knock it out of the ballpark and reach our goals,” he says.
If you can’t hand off work to someone else, then you can’t get away.
Overcome your delegation nightmares
To keep her company running smoothly, Anderson created a support system that makes it easier for someone who has been delegated a task to complete the work for which they’re now responsible.
In most cases, people know how to complete at least some of the work they’re being asked to do while a colleague is out, but they may not know how to handle it all. Anderson asks people to tell her what part of the job they can complete on their own, what they might need some help with and what they don’t know how to do at all. She then pairs the delegate with another employee or executive who can help guide them.
If they need more support when I’m away, we find them someone who can give them that direction
“We sit them down and say ‘here’s what’s happening now’ and we help them understand the current state of things,” Anderson says. “If they need more support when I’m away, we find them someone who can give them that direction.”
Of course, for this to work, we’ve got to be surrounded by people who can pick up the slack when we’re not around, says Lash. That means a team with skills beyond those needed just for their own work and enough commitment to the group to accept and complete someone else’s work—knowing their turn will soon come.
But even the best colleagues and bosses are useless if you wait until the plane is taking off to start delegating. Lash says starting to delegate isn’t as hard as it might seem. Take a piece of paper and write everything down that’s currently on your plate. Then figure out how many hours each task takes, and how often it needs to be done, and make a note of it. Then you can think through the skills of the people around you and start to decide who to delegate different things to.
“Part of breaking the addiction to achievement is to delegate off the things that you shouldn’t be doing and these are often the things we don’t like to do,” leaving delegators time to work more on the things they like and can excel in, Lash says.
Find a better way?
With many Americans—and others—worried about the economy and their jobs, and with America moving seemingly more in an individual-first direction, Pfeffer and Lash think the country’s no-vacation attitude could get worse. He and others say it’s up to us to take a stand around time off and ensure that our jobs get done in our absence. That is, be proactive so you can easily make time off possible and palatable.
“It’s difficult to leave and we might be bad at it, but it gets easier,” Anderson says. “Now, I can’t wait to go back to work with fresh ideas. My brain’s working and my body feels good, too.”
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