The Art of Delegation

  • 8 mins read

An alarming number of leaders suffer from the sensation that each day they are losing ground, unable to stay in front of the wave of overburdening workloads, deadlines and expectations. The toll on productivity, morale and health often goes unrecognized until a crisis hits.

Equally alarming is that in some cases it is self-induced. Many leaders take on assignments, unnecessarily retain work or fail to delegate when the opportunities exist. Granted, in this do-more-with-less culture, leaders may have fewer resources, but overworked managers often fail to understand what true delegation is and are unable to delegate even when they do.

Leaders who don’t delegate suffer from an inability to manage, as desperation becomes the norm. The added stress and anxiety flows from the leader’s desk to the staff, and sets the entire organization on edge. Conditions around the team worsen as attitudes, engagement, efficiency and profitability degrade.

Many leaders view delegation as a sign of weakness, an inability to handle the job, something done out of desperation. However, delegation is a strategic tool used by wise leaders to make the most of available manpower to clear tough obstacles. Learning to delegate offers leaders relief and equips them to manage at their best, which is ultimately best for everyone.

Categorizing Work to Delegate

If piles of work are spilling over on your desk, your last thought might be how to redistribute some of the work, but this is exactly the thing to do. Do it while you still have some clarity of mind and grasp of the projects at hand. Skillful delegation builds team unity and accountability, as people pull together to achieve a goal and help each other get better.

The baffling issue may be where to begin. The pile of work looks overwhelming. The first step is to categorize and separate it into two groups: one that cannot be delegated and another that can. As a leader, you certainly have assignments or tasks that must be handled at your level with your experience, connections or authority.

However, many leaders are surprised by the amount of work on their desk that can be handled by lower levels. Some of it may be busywork, manual-type of work, revising work that has already been done or tasks that can be done with the experience and skills of a staff member. This is the group of tasks that are candidates for delegation. Will it take a sizeable investment of your time to sort through your piles to make these determinations? Of course, but you will find the investment well worth making.

Workload priorities must also be taken into account. As Jayson DeMers, CEO of AudienceBloom writes in an article for Inc.com, develop a priority system for tasks. What is essential and what can wait? Delegating hotter projects may give you enough time to catch your breath and resume a more normal routine sooner than you think. Another tactic is delegating simpler, quick work and allow yourself to tackle the more complex with better focus.

Seasonal businesses offer experienced leaders some predictability to periods of higher expected workload, so it pays to make other staff members available for delegated tasks based on a calendar. Plan for those before the rush hits.

Releasing Control

Some leaders misunderstand the nature of delegation. They believe they can wash their hands of responsibilities when staff members are handed assignments that were originally on the leader’s desk. The employee is now on their own to deal with the outcome, whether favorable or unfavorable. This abdication is not what delegation is about.

An organization still holds the leader responsible, regardless of whose hands actually performed the work. Leaders who try to dodge responsibility by pitching work to others soon experience a myriad of negative consequences, including distrust and disloyalty from their people.

Most delegation hesitancy lands on the other side of the control spectrum, where leaders are not willing to let go of control. As Jesse Sostrin, PhD, describes in HBR, overextension fuels an instinctive reaction to “protect” work. Leaders who keep the workload to themselves often believe that somehow the delegation of work reduces their importance, or at least how superiors perceive it.

Ironically, delegating work puts a leader’s control into action with decision-making, task coordination and goal achievement. The more that work is reserved for leaders, the less of it actually gets done. This doesn’t reflect well on a leader’s state of control. Leaders who can be helped to see this are more able to break their control-clutching behavior.

Another control-related reason leaders choose not to delegate is the perceived time and effort needed to train an employee or bring them up to speed. It seems too inconvenient or too remedial for someone at their level to do, and it feels too much like a sacrifice of control. Leaders who can deemphasize their sense of control and turn their attention to solving problems resist delegating less.

Learning to Trust

When a leader delegates a task, they face a risk of the assignment not getting done exactly the way they expect. This frightens some managers into thinking the employee’s results won’t meet their personal criteria, and the simple way for this to be avoided is not to delegate.

Bordering on the control theme, this concern stems from a leader’s lack of trust in the employee’s abilities. Leaders who doubt anyone can perform a specific task as well as they can severely limit what their team can accomplish. A leadership coach can help mitigate this mindset with one that empowers employees to prove themselves.

If the employee’s skills aren’t fully understood, the leader must be the one to correct this. Fortunately, this is relatively simple to address. If it is a matter of the leader not believing in a specific employee, they may find delegating easier if they use a process of monitoring the employee’s progress.

However, monitoring doesn’t mean smothering or micromanaging someone. People need the freedom to work and use their skills, and are benefitted by leaders who only occasionally verify how they’re doing. Periodically inquiring about their progress is a fair tradeoff for debilitating, pestering distrust.

Keeping knowledge to oneself is not the job-security anchor many seem to think it is. Knowledge is not power, rather, power is the ability to harness the collective knowledge of the staff. Leaders succeed by teaching and trusting people and allowing them to contribute in ways they couldn’t before. Encourage growth and suggest ways to make improvements.

Following Up with Feedback

A critical aspect of delegating is what occurs after the task is finished. This is the delegation follow-up stage, which includes feedback.

The project assignment, whether delegated or not, should come with a clearly communicated set of expectations. How the employee met those expectations is the subject of the feedback. Employees who meet expectations deserve appropriate praise for their success. Giving people recognition and thanks for their efforts keeps them engaged and willing to do more.

On the other hand, when expectations are not met, a constructive feedback process is necessary. This is a considerate discussion on the improvements needed, while pointing out the positive things that took place. Leaders who can give instructive feedback while expressing consideration and thanks earn trust from employees and guide them to improvement.

Nothing causes your people to dread delegation more than an unfortunate response from you. When they dread it, the result of their work suffers accordingly. This in turn causes you to dread it, and the cycles spirals down.

As an expression of humility and openness, ask your people for their feedback on your delegation methods. Can your style be better? This dialogue helps to improve the delegation relationship and make you a better leader. Keep in mind that each employee may have a slightly different approach to feedback and discussion. Knowing them personally gives you the best advantage.

Your goal is to have a staff that welcomes delegated tasks so they can be better contributors. Many leaders find this to be the most freeing way to be better delegators; when the process yields two-way success the organization is better suited to manage high workload situations. Make delegation a welcomed tool in your arsenal and raise the level of production for you and your staff.

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