MASTERING THE ART OF DELEGATION
Effective delegation builds employee competence, trust and retention; poor delegation skills destroy confidence, morale and initiative
Ultimately, it is your responsibility to ensure that the job gets done. The key is
avoiding your default tendency to either micromanage or underlead.
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
Being a great leader hinges on learning how to delegate well. Delegation is the key to maximizing your capacity and impact. Think of it this way: Your power as a leader decreases with every initiative you hold onto and increases with every team member you empower to contribute their best work to your shared priorities. While many leaders say they’re “big on delegation,” relatively few use it to its full potential.
Signs you may need to delegate more
Common symptoms of insufficient delegation include:
- You’re feeling overwhelmed, sucked into too many meetings, and drained by all the decisions you need to make.
- You feel indispensable and your ability to unplug can be measured in only hours, not days or weeks.
- You feel like your team doesn’t take ownership of projects and that you’re the only one who cares.
- You find yourself stuck in a decision bottleneck, leading to inaction on many fronts.
- Your team members say, “I’m happy to help you with this” (often an indication that you’re doling out tasks, not handing over responsibility).
- You don’t have time to delegate or train someone.
If this sounds familiar, now is a good time to look at what’s stopping you from delegating more.
What holds leaders back
In coaching leaders, I hear a variety of reasons for not delegating more. Some leaders feel it’s faster and easier to do it themselves, while others are perfectionists who struggle with giving up control. A common complaint is that a leader hands off the assignment, but it comes back in the long run, usually at the 11th hour when there’s not enough time to fix it. Some leaders lack confidence and fear that, if others on the team have similar skills, their value to the organization will diminish.
Making the shift from doing to leading is a tough transition for many leaders. Leaders typically achieve their positions because they’re good at doing the work of the organization. But leadership requires something very different from them, and that’s getting work accomplished through others. The transition can be especially hard in organizations that view being a good manager as a “nice to have” and producing the core work as what really counts.
Best practices of highly effective delegators
Effective delegators recognize that delegating is more than checking items off their to-do lists and using their own time more efficiently. It’s about building the capability and capacity of their team, fostering trust, and creating a work environment with ample opportunity for professional growth. They also know that “how” you delegate is the critical factor in reducing risk and maximizing results. Here are 10 best practices for delegating wisely and effectively.
- Delegate, don’t dump. You need to have a reason that you are delegating, and that reason shouldn’t be because you hate the task. If you are delegating just because you don’t want to do something, that’s dumping and the person will feel it and resent it. Instead, choose the task that will help you out the most. Be careful not to make the conversation all about how busy you are. Focus on why you’re asking this person for help, why the task is important and how they’re contributing. If it is a learning opportunity for the individual, stress that.
- Choose the right person and the right task. Make delegation part of your planning and prioritizing process. One way to do this is to make a three-column chart. In the first column, list your activities over the past two weeks and the next two weeks. In the second column, estimate hours/minutes devoted to each. Use column three to rank each item for its importance using a 10-point scale, with one being very important. This exercise will let you see where you’re devoting too much time and energy to priorities that were not in the top five. These are candidates for delegation. Next, consider each team member’s skills and professional development goals and ability to take on more responsibility to match tasks with people. Some of the initiatives can be completely handed off. Others can be broken down into a few smaller pieces to involve people without a full transfer of responsibility.
- Clarify your expectations. Delegation often goes awry because expectations are unclear. Before you hand off a task, make sure it’s clear in your mind what you want to accomplish. Critical questions to answer are:
- What’s the outcome you’re seeking?
- What exactly needs to be done?
- Why are we doing it? (Explain how it fits in the bigger picture.)
- Who will do what?
- When do you need it?
- What support will the person need? (Before handing off the task, identify the challenges that could occur once the work leaves your hands and address them preemptively.)
- Define boundaries. Successful delegators let their team members know exactly where they have autonomy and where they don’t (yet). When you give someone a task, it is essential to give them some level of authority over the work. If you expect them to clear everything through you, they will likely feel micromanaged and miss out on a substantial part of the learning opportunity. Be clear about where they have the authority to make decisions, spend money, engage others and represent the organization, and where they don’t.
- Determine the support the person will need. When it comes to delegation, one size does not fit all. Assess where someone is in the learning curve relative to the task and delegate accordingly. For example, if someone is new to the organization or the work, have them shadow you as you complete the task in front of them. (Do it.) If the employee knows some of the steps needed for a given task but struggles with others, show him or her how to perform a task by explaining why you’re doing things a certain way. Calling out the individual steps reveals the underlying structure of how you approach the work. (Teach.) When the direct report is fully capable of handling the assignment, still keep the lines of communication open and remain accessible in case circumstances change or challenges arise. (Support.)
- Set a deadline. If you don’t set a specific deadline, the project may never reach the top of someone’s priority list. The deadline should be challenging but realistic. Ideally, the person you’re delegating to should participate in determining the deadline. Be sure to build in extra time if there is a learning curve in completing the assignment or if you’re unsure of the person’s track record for meeting deadlines.
- Have checkpoints and milestones. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to ensure that the job gets done. Stay involved by agreeing to junctures for feedback along the way. The key is avoiding micromanaging or underleading; the level of support the individual needs will dictate how often you need to check in. Determining the right level of contact needed will enable you to minimize time wasted by heading in the wrong direction, address any gaps or quality issues early on and avoid last-minute surprises.
- Expect and embrace mistakes. People are going to make mistakes. Leaders often respond by taking the project back and handling it themselves or using it as justification for why they shouldn’t have delegated in the first place. Instead, view mistakes as a learning opportunity. Use the experience the person gains from the mistake to bolster their confidence that now they know how to handle it better next time.
- Accept that people won’t do it the way you do. When you delegate a task, especially one you’re used to doing yourself, it can be hard to let go of the way you would do it. Successful delegation takes holding people to the job’s technical requirements and the outcome you expect but giving them the freedom and flexibility to do it their way.
- Set people up to succeed. Make sure team members have the resources they need to do the job, whether training, money, supplies, time, a private space, adjusted priorities, or help from others. Use feedback to foster learning, build confidence and deepen trust.
Reframe how you think about delegation
Delegation doesn’t always feel like the path of least resistance. That’s because nine times out of 10, you can’t just hand off the assignment, walk away and get a good result. With most employees, effective delegation takes skill, patience and oversight. So, if you judge delegation strictly based on efficiency, you’ll miss the more significant opportunity.
When you delegate and delegate well, you’re investing in the growth of your people, building your team’s capacity, and exponentially increasing the impact of your leadership.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.