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How can I delegate effectively when my staff seem so overworked?

In a recent poll which I conducted in school leader groups on Facebook and LinkedIn, 57% of respondents said that worry about staff workload was the biggest barrier to delegating effectively. This certainly resonates with recent coaching conversations I’ve had with school leaders. Indeed, heavy staff workload and the subsequent effect on staff wellbeing seems to be one of the biggest issues facing the education sector at the moment.

But it’s not a new issue. In my 17 years as a school leader, the skill of delegating was probably one of the hardest leadership skills for me to learn. Worrying about how much other staff had to do was probably the biggest factor, but there was also a bit of people-pleasing, a mindset of thinking that as the headteacher I should be the hardest worker, and sometimes, also, a lack of confidence in staff to be able to do things to the level required. I think the latter is particularly pertinent when you take on a school in difficult circumstances. Sometimes, you need to put your faith in people that others have written off.

As a headteacher, all these considerations often stopped me from delegating things that were clogging up my day and preventing me from doing the things I really needed to do. Working with a leadership coach helped me to see things more clearly and find ways through. I was able to get clear on my values and vision and notice that I was ‘getting in my own way’ where delegation was concerned. Sometimes I had made assumptions about how other staff felt about their workload, and when I talked to them, it turned out that they really wanted the opportunity to step up and try new things. Another problem for me was wanting to get everything done at once, rather than having a few realistic key priorities for us to focus our attention and effort onto. I had to learn to put things aside and also develop the art of maintenance – keeping things ticking over without a lot of effort.

If you’re struggling to delegate because of worries about staff wellbeing, these are some of the things I have found to be most important:

· Agile prioritisation

Being crystal clear on school priorities and ready to adapt quickly to new situations and contexts is crucial. Adaptation means being prepared to put things aside that aren’t ‘mission critical’ (by the way, it’s really important that ‘mission critical’ doesn’t translate into ‘quick wins’). The amazing author and coach, Michael Bungay-Stanier has a great question he calls the ‘strategy’ question: “If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?” Putting things aside can be tough, but if you don’t do it, staff are sure to get overloaded.

· Meaningful dialogue

It’s important to make sure there is regular and meaningful dialogue with staff and other stakeholders to gather feedback on the work of the school and how different people/groups view how things are progressing. This is a way of ‘keeping your ear to the ground’ and spotting trends and issues early, so that you can take quick action. You can gather info on where in the organisation there is spare capacity and where things are really tight.

· Effective 1:1 meetings

Regular and efficient 1:1 meetings with your direct reports (the people you line manage) to check in (emotionally and practically), listen to the challenges they are facing, and work together to ensure they are putting their time and energy into the priorities that are most important for the organisation. During the meeting, clear and kind feedback should be given – both positive and constructive. A 1:1 meeting, effectively managed, can help you gauge what can and cannot be delegated and how to make that delegation most successful.

· Effective team meetings

Meetings with the whole team give the opportunity for 2-way feedback and the chance to set an appropriate tone and pace for things that need to be done. Well-run team meetings also help to create ‘psychologically safe’ teams where people feel supported and nurtured. If you’re part of a team that ‘has each other’s backs’, you’re more likely to have good wellbeing and speak up about workload issues.

These are 4 big areas, and can take a lot of working through. I would suggest starting small, and having lots of open and honest conversations where you listen more than talking. If you want to get systematic about your meetings and your delegation, I really recommend the book ‘Productivity Ninja’ by Graham Allcott. His organisation, ‘Think Productive’ also offer training and support, and they share good stuff on social media. There are loads of great suggestions in the book, but one that I found incredibly helpful when delegating was the idea of having a page in my notebook for each of my leaders, that I would open each time we had a 1:1. It would help me hold onto the threads from our previous conversations and check up on certain actions. I could also add to that page during my working week, when I thought of things that I really wanted to discuss with that person. A simple idea, but very effective.

Coaching can be a really useful tool in developing the skill of delegation. If you’d like to explore coaching options, you can email me on, or book in for a complimentary, no obligation, consultation here

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1 Comment

Niamh Uí Chadhla
Niamh Uí Chadhla
Dec 04, 2022

This is such an excellent piece and so relevant to me as a school leader in Ireland. Everyone is so busy, I find myself prioritising supporting them above getting my own work done, leaving my family to suffer as I catch up on my own work at weekends and in the evenings. Thank you for excellent advice and strategies.

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