When my sons were young, I would tell them to go and clean their room. One could handle his part of the job. The other was completely overwhelmed by the task. He would sit on the floor and become engrossed in the books that he was supposed to be putting on the shelf. Getting him to clean his part of the room was a bit of a battle.
I thought about the appropriateness of the chore. Cleaning one’s room is not an unreasonable expectation. However, a room that has gotten out of hand can be daunting. I find my own room intimidating to clean when I put it off for too long.
One day, I decided to break the task up into manageable bits so he wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. I asked him to put away one category of items for ten minutes. For example, I asked him to just put away books for ten minutes. I wanted to set him up for success.
When we first take on a task or assign one to someone else, we want the experience to be a positive one. If we overwhelm someone with too much information in the beginning, they can lose hope. As leaders, we want to do what we can to ensure success early. It’s easy to increase the difficulty of the actions as a person’s skill and familiarity with a task grows.
Instead of dumping an entire task on someone, we can break it down into pieces. If an employee’s ultimate responsibility is to compile information and create a complex report, we can hand over the requirements in pieces.
For example, we could first have them collect the information from the various people they will collaborate with. It would give them a chance to meet fellow employees and learn why the information is important. They could also ensure the information is in the proper format, and learn what that looks like and why we request the information in that way. Then we move on and have them do another piece of the report.
In the book Drive, Daniel Pink states that mastery is one of the things that motivates people. We want to become good at doing things. We want to do tasks well and with ease. Mastery comes with practice. If we ask too much in the beginning, we can make mastery seem like a far-fetched goal. We want people to experience small successes along the way. Each success builds confidence and motivates us to take on the next level of the task.
Another reason to begin with easy is that we want to create a positive feeling about the task and avoid a bad attitude. My nephew’s teacher is requiring four days of creative writing a week. He is eight years old and faces frustration and anger each evening as he cranks out two pages of creative writing. His attitude toward writing is not good at the moment. My sister is currently advocating on his behalf with the teacher so that he won’t decide that he is not a good writer or that he will never write again.
My son was successful when I set a time limit and had him focus on just one part of the entire job. Gradually, we lengthened the time and broadened the scope of what he would do at one time. Each small win made him feel more confident that he could handle cleaning his room.
The key is to ensure that any job we do ourselves or assign to another never feels hopeless. We can all master our tasks – and have a positive attitude about them – if we create small successes that build up to complete proficiency. It might feel like it takes longer to delegate in this way, but the positive feelings and errors that we avoid far outweigh a little bit of time.
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