How to Delegate Successfully
by Jamie Harris
Whether you're a leader at your company, or you help develop them, the practice of delegating to others successfully is both an art and a science. And the upside to your organization is huge: Effective delegation can empower and engage employees, fuel initiatives, and spur energy and creativity. What's more, delegation clears a leader's crowded plate of things that someone else can do, so you can focus on the things you must do. When a leader excels at delegating, ownership, and accountability take off, too.
According to a former client, Steve Arneson, who is also the author of Bootstrap Leadership:
1. Delegation is your most precious management resource. It allows you to get more work done and frees you up to focus on critical tasks.
2. Get good at delegating – now. You won't survive doing everything yourself; start getting the team involved.
3. Once you delegate, step back. You’re giving others the assignment, and also the authority to do it their way. They might not do it exactly as you would, but that’s OK – they might do it better!
Delegating is critical to a leader's success, and yet many leaders struggle to do it effectively. Delegating unsuccessfully is far more common, and there are different ways to see how it fails. One is where the leader has delegated decisions and actions, and then does not accept the resulting decisions or actions of the employee. Another common type is when a leader doesn't "let go" and continues to micro-manage how the work is done, which is often worse than not delegating. Unsuccessful delegation results in frustrated employees, rework, disempowerment, and a vicious spiral of declining trust.
How Do You Make Delegation Work?
First, understand the difference between assigning a task and delegating responsibility coupled with authority. If you feel there is only one right way to get something done, or only one way you will accept, then simply assign the task with great precision, including “how” you want it to be done. In this situation, don't pretend that you are delegating; be clear with yourself and the employee that you are simply assigning a task with a defined outcome and defined way to accomplish it. Honest clarity will benefit both parties.
Assuming you really do intend to delegate both responsibility and authority for some key decisions in regard to the work to be done, then there is a useful discipline that will increase your chances of success. Delegation is a form of management conversation that involves certain key components for success. Understanding and practicing these key components in a thoughtful way, in a spirit of shared responsibility, works for both the leader and the employee.
A flexible "Big Picture” model is helpful for moving from problem to solution, as depicted in the circle-arrow-circle model below. This framework summarizes the components of a successful delegation conversation:
First, as a leader, you need to be clear on "The Big Picture." What is the problem or opportunity that calls for some delegation of responsibility? In general terms, what is the outcome are you looking for? As a leader, you must make a conscious choice about who you're delegating to. Does he/she have a particular expertise? Is this an opportunity for stretch and growth of the person? “Drive-by” delegation (i.e. choosing a person to delegate something important to just based on happenstance or mere expedience), often leads to disappointment. With the big picture in mind and a reasoned choice of employee, the facilitative leader will then plan for an effective conversation including three phases: Set-Up, Engage, and Complete.
Setting Up the Conversation
A delegation conversation basically is a meeting but, as in any meeting, the facilitative leader wants to be sure all participants understand the objectives and agenda of the meeting before diving directly into the content. At the beginning of any conversation with a senior manager an employee is often wondering: What’s this about? Why me? Where is this conversation going? Taking a few minutes at the beginning to describe The Big Picture provides context. Laying out a simple agenda gives a roadmap for the conversation. This set-up part of the conversation will help answer the employee’s natural questions and allow the employee to focus on the content rather than continue to be distracted by the questions and uncertainties in his or her head.
A simple statement of the Desired Outcomes might sound like this: “In this conversation I want to delegate a specific responsibility to you, be sure you have a full understanding of the project and my constraints, and agree on what support you may need to get the job done.” The “topics and flow” could be as simple as: “First let me describe the Big Picture and what this is all about in general terms. Then I’ll define the job I want you to take on, and we can discuss the parameters and constraints I have in mind, and any questions you have. Then we’ll talk about your ideas about support and resources you think you might need, and come up with agreements on how we’ll communicate about this project while you’re working on it. How does that sound to you?”
The Engage Phase
In the Engage phase, the task and goals are defined as well as the expectations, constraints, and requirements the leader has relating to the task. A frequent breakdown in delegation occurs when the leader has not sufficiently thought through what his or her expectations, boundaries and constraints actually are — or, after having done so, fails to communicate them effectively. Lacking understanding of expectations or constraints, the employee goes off and does what he or she thinks is the right thing; only to find out that the result is not accepted because of something in the leader’s mind she didn’t know about, because the leader failed to tell her. In discussing the expectations, boundaries and constraints it is important that you encourage lots of questions and allow challenges. This is an important part of the shared responsibility for success. The employee needs to have crystal clarity about expectations and constraints. By thinking them through together, the employee can actually help the leader clarify and communicate his or her thoughts more clearly, but only if the leader encourages and supports meaningful questions and dialogue. A frequent flaw here is when leaders assume understanding simply because he or she says something which is perfectly clear to the leader, but is not questioned by the employee (yet not really understood).
Other key topics, as indicated in the framework, include why the person was selected for the delegation, resources and communication. Obviously the more these topics are clear and mutually understood up front, the less time you will have to spend down the road dealing with issues and problems. Clear agreements about how and when the employee and the leader will communicate about the work give both parties a sense of security, and helps reduce tendencies toward micro-management and intrusion by leaders about how the work is going. When will check-ins and reports be expected? What is the level of detail that will be exchanged? At what points will the leader provide feedback, course corrections, reviews, approvals? Who else needs to be communicated with during the work, and how will that communication be conducted?
On to Completion
Here, in the spirit of “Go Slow to Go Fast,” the facilitative leader will slow down to check for understanding of the key agreements reached during the conversation, discuss and build agreement on next steps, and at least occasionally ask for some feedback from the employee about what worked, and what could be done better in the conversation. Complex delegations with multiple important agreements are of course typically put into writing.
Often the hardest part comes next — you need to step back and follow the agreements that were made, especially about the when and how of communication around the work. And when the employee brings back the results, you need to accept the outcomes, so long as they are consistent with the expectations and parameters that were agreed upon at the beginning. When you change your mind and reject decisions or work that is consistent with the communicated expectations and parameters, the stage has been set for frustration and mistrust that will have a long and counter-productive life in the future relationship between leader and employee.
A simple story will help to clarify how this framework provides real and lasting value. I recently taught this model and related inquiry and advocacy skills to 12 mid-level managers in a large and complex public agency. They were requested to consciously practice using the framework in a delegation conversation between two sessions of the learning process. When they returned to the next session, all 12 said using the framework to prepare for conduct a delegation conversation was extremely valuable to them. Comments included: "It forced me to really choose the right person." "Thinking about my constraints helped me to overcome my usual tendency to micro-manage people so I could let go." "When I had the conversation, and encouraged my employee to ask questions about my expectations, he got really engaged and excited about the task. I could see how motivated he was getting as we had more dialogue and answered his questions."
The art and science of delegation, like any other, requires conscious practice. The purpose of the framework is to focus attention on the key elements that need to be considered and practiced, just like music theory focuses on the key chords and scales that have to be practiced to play jazz. In leadership, as in music, the best improvisations are based on careful preparation.
Subscribe to IA Insights
Get the latest from us in our monthly newsletter, packed with offers, news, and practical insights.Click Here