How to Delegate When Your Team Is Already Overloaded

What do you do when you have an important new project that you’d like to delegate to a staff member, but your entire team is swamped? If you go ahead and dump it on them anyway, in the hopes that they’ll find a way to fit it all in, that’s a recipe for a frustrated and demoralized staff – and for things falling through the cracks by necessity. But sometimes new work comes up that’s legitimately important and does need to be done. Here’s how to handle it.

1. First, just because someone is busy doesn’t mean you can’t delegate to them. But it does mean that you probably need to help them reprioritize the rest of their work. People’s time doesn’t magically expand to fit an ever-increasing workload, so be realistic about the fact that other items will need to be pushed back. Are there other tasks that can be assigned out to someone else, have their due dates adjusted, or be removed from their plate altogether? If the person’s plate is already full when the new project arrives, you’re going to have to help them rearrange other work.

2. Tell people explicitly that you’re aware that they’re swamped. People are far more likely to get burned out and frustrated when their manager seems to have no awareness of their workload, so let them know that you do.

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3. If possible, consider making the project “as time allows.” Be explicit that it doesn’t need to be done until their workload is at a more manageable level. (Of course, be realistic here. On some teams, that means that it will never get done and will just hang around making people feel guilty.)

4. If you have a staff member who’s frequently too busy to take on new work, this might be a sign to step back and reassess the person’s workload altogether. People need to have breathing room in their schedules, so that they can take a sick day, go on vacation, have time to think about the bigger picture (not just put out fires), and not burn out.

5. If the person is frequently too busy to take on new work but you’re confident that that’s not warranted by their actual workload, something else is going on. Are they overwhelmed because their skills or work habits aren’t what you need in the role? Are you on different pages about what “good enough” looks like? Regardless of the possible explanations, this is a sign that you need to sit down with your employee and talk.







Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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