Do You Really Know How to Delegate?

December 11, 2019

Delegation is a challenge for every manager in a growing organisation. At some point or another, there is a pressing need to share responsibility, share tasks, share decisions.

delegating wood puzzle pieces

What results from this need is usually one of two things. It either facilitates economic and personal growth and increases productivity, or sparks a roaring fire of mistakes, problems, decreasing motivation, a sense of incapacity to delegate and to accept responsibility.

I live with this challenge every day. I've also come across people who say they have a lot of work and responsibility, and that is the reason why they can't delegate. Adding to this is that when they do delegate, they do it ineffectively. It's a chicken-and-egg-like problem: how can I have a team with whom I can share responsibility, decisions, problem-solving, without having sufficient time that I think I need to do it? I don't have the time to create conditions so that I can have more time to do the things which can't be delegated. Got it? If not, I’ll try to make it simpler...

What are we doing?

We need to understand what delegation really is. If you go through your office and ask your colleagues what delegation means, the most common answer will probably be: shrugging off responsibilities. One of the immediate consequences of this line of thinking is that high-level tasks are only delegated when we as managers don’t have time to do them. The other one is that we’re setting up our employees for failure. Neither of these is a situation we necessarily want. Ultimately these two consequences are enough for us to understand how unwanted this form of delegation is. Well, in fact, this is not delegation.

The need to delegate usually emerges when we are already overwhelmed and want to pass tasks to anyone else just to get them off our to-do lists. Again, this is not delegation. If you are doing this, it means you are already starting too late.

We sometimes delegate tasks as a challenge for new joiners. It’s not uncommon to hear phrases like: let’s see if they can solve this on their own; let’s not give all the information to see if they can work it out by themselves. This, quite clearly, is not delegation.

Why are we doing it wrong?

One belief hindering managers’ power to delegate is the supposed lack of productivity involved in the task of delegation. Managers tend to label the time spent delegating as "time lost" or "time not well-spent". The focus on financial results, customer orientation, the best practices and processes is so strong that it overpowers the willingness to involve others in these challenges.

The other problem is that we think delegation is simple and easy to execute. However, it is one of the most challenging aspects of leadership. As mentioned, it can have a great impact on individual and team motivation.

We have to understand that we have to learn to delegate. Most people when facing the need for delegation have never done it before. We have received responsibilities from others, but ironically nobody usually teaches us how to do it.

What should we do?

There’s a clear path to proper delegation. We need to provide experience so that the employee in question can work their way to completing challenging tasks successfully. The most probable consequence of rushing this process is failure for all the people involved and, in the end, for the team and the company. It’s clear to see that the importance of this delegation process grows exponentially from middle management upwards through the company structure.

To delegate properly, we need to clearly communicate what the desired result is for each activity: in other words, what is the optimal outcome from a particular task or job you’ve assigned to the individual in question? This is extremely important. Failing to do this will, obviously, hinder the possibilities of the other person delivering the same result or, even more, a better one.

We need to pass on documentation. It can be deliverables, related work files (Excel, Word), emails, contacts, stakeholder information (in this case, we tend not to identify the internal customers or suppliers), the dependences of the task – for example, where do I get information from, and who is(are) the recipient(s) of the final result?

Finally, we need to allow the other person to shadow us when we’re working on the most demanding and high-level tasks. They should be given the opportunity to see how we do it, how we discuss with others, how we deliver the information, how we communicate with stakeholders. Most importantly, they need to see us managing the pitfalls so that they are aware of how we deal with tricky situations. This step is probably more important when moving up the hierarchy – when the responsibility broadens, and leadership is more demanding, is when this shadow-mode is truly indispensable. Unfortunately, it is also when it is most neglected.

So, why don’t we do it right?

This statement by Art Markman gives us some food for thought: “Stop delegating, start teaching.” If we want people to succeed and be happy in their roles, we need to teach them, not just hand them a list of tasks to be accomplished - oftentimes without a clear idea of the desired outcome. This will ultimately create a more productive, more effective, and overall more contented workplace for everyone.

by Carlos João Diogo

Project Manager