The Fine Art of Delegation

Delegation? Empowerment? Have look at the definitions of these in any book or online and it seems so straightforward. Delegation appears to be  just a formula to follow. I have a different take, and maybe we can work out why you are getting it wrong…

Delegation and empowerment are different. The way I define the difference is this:

Delegation is the act of passing a task/activity on to someone else whilst retaining the overall accountability for the task. The last bit is extremely important in any hierarchical organisation, without it the person you delegate to (the delegate) is exposed and, as I will go into below, you will not get many of the benefits of delegating.

Empowerment is the overall team or (leader-follower) dynamic that allows the autonomous activity. In order for delegation to be effective and efficient the team need to have an overall level of empowerment that is conducive to the types of tasks delegated. There is no point delegating an entire strategic project to someone with no delegated authority and who needs to check every decision with you. Indeed, even if you were to specify that this task is different (i.e. more empowered) the leap from lapdog to project manager would most probably be too much and greatly increase the chances of failure.

This distinction is important – it reminds us that there is ‘background’ work to be done on delegation and firmly places the bulk of responsibility for the success or failure of the delegation (i.e. not the task itself) with the delegator. Note: this is not the same as responsibility for the task – failure/mistakes are a natural part of doing something new.

OK. So that’s what delegation is – why an art? Because delegation definitely isn’t a science i.e. A+B = C (reliably) and I think that delegation is elusive for a number of reasons:

  • It can only really be learnt by doing
  • It has stigma prejudices attached to it
  • It potentially needs to be done differently for every person and every type of task

There are a huge number of reasons why delegating in the right way is beneficial desirable:

  • Builds relationships with your team
  • It can add to an overall feeling of empowerment
  • They may add ideas or create new ways of doing things
  • It is an opportunity for others to learn
  • Changes pace/approach/dynamics
  • Frees your time in the long-run
  • You can offload the tasks you are least effective at carrying out and don’t need to learn

Now the good news is that for most people in management/leadership position those benefits aren’t a surprise. That gives a very interesting questions to ask: why don’t we do it. Well for me this is where it gets interesting. Having asked this of hundreds of managers of varying levels of self-awareness I have come up with the following list:

  • It takes a little longer at first
  • It can make you feel out of control
  • You might feel threatened and your position encroached upon
  • They may not do it your way or as good as you as first (and you have unrealistic standards).
  • You blame the ‘culture’
  • You are scared that you might be seen as ‘not doing anything’
  • You might have to let go of the tasks you ‘like’
  • You are concerned that people will view you as passing on jobs you dislike
  • You are worried that they will fail and be de-motivated.
  • You afraid of stopping what you know you are good at to go into realms of the unknown

OK. So the control one is probably pretty obvious but the rest are quite subtle. What huge chunks of your role could you ditch but you like (for instance)? I have known this not only get in the way of delegating but even weaken the argument for increased resources because the manager isn’t willing to include the stuff they like in the business case (although they didn’t realise they were doing that).

The key to getting better at delegating now is:

1) Increase the level of empowerment (and responsibility) to the maximum tolerable level
2) Identify which of the above obstacles are your biggest challenge
3) Take actions designed to prove your preconceptions (in 2) wrong.