I need

I learned the hard way that delegating is not one-size-fits-all.

For years, in all my roles, I took action whenever my manager said, “I need…” In my mind, if they needed something I knew, had access to, or could get, I was glad to provide it. If they needed it asap, I shifted priorities to make it happen.

“I need” worked for me. But I found it didn’t work for everyone.

One day, I had a hot request from my VP for something I couldn’t provide, so I went to the manager on my team who had the info. After brief pleasantries, I said, “Ruby, I need…”

She glared at me, face reddening. Something was obviously wrong. When I asked, she replied with vehemence, “I’m sick and tired of you asking for what you need.” (Emphasis on need.“You expect me to drop what I’m doing to respond. I have other things to do that are more important.”

Whoa! That was unexpected. I repeated that the info was needed by our VP. And I was asking her because she had the content and could put it into the format the VP wanted. Ruby boiled. So, I sat down and asked, “Do you want to talk about this? Because it appears it’s not just this request that’s making you angry.” 

Ruby unloaded. She resented reporting to me. She’d run her department for years and believed she should have been promoted to my level when, instead, the reorg moved her into my department. I knew she wasn’t happy with the reorg, but I didn’t realize she was that angry about it.

I had work to do. First and foremost, I would never say “I need” to her again. I had to think about my words before I opened my mouth or sent a quick email. That got me thinking.

It led me to talk with each of my direct reports about my delegating. Was I bugging the heck out of everyone on my team? The overall response was that they knew the person I was reporting to had a tendency to “need” things right away – and expected to get them – no matter what we were doing. They also knew I was a buffer for them whenever I could anticipate her questions and requests.

But Ruby worked on another floor and didn’t have daily interactions with us. She preferred it that way and didn’t attend anything unless required. That distance fed some of her assumptions. I was guilty, too, of not talking with her often, other than our regular 1:1s, because she was not welcoming.

I learned there’s an art and skill to delegating. I couldn’t assume everyone would respond similarly. I became more thoughtful about how I worded my requests, and more appreciative up front. I’d let the person know why their expertise was requested, so they hopefully felt valued, not dumped on.

Ruby and I eventually developed an understanding of each other that worked.

I still say “I need” at times, but I try to find a better approach.

Because for some people “need” is the beginning of “needle.” I sure don’t want to be that to them.

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