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Why Can't You Delegate?

We are told that delegation is the key management tool for getting work done through people. With all the pressure to do more with less, managers should be good at delegation. But this is unfortunately not true.

Here are some of the "good reasons" managers use not to delegate:

  • We can't afford to get it wrong.
  • It takes too much time; I can do it quicker myself.
  • My team members are too busy already.
  • I don't trust my team members to take full responsibility.
  • No one else knows how to do this but me.
  • This issue needs the attention of someone at my level.

Barriers to Delegation

  1. Excessive ownership: The responsibility of a managerial role makes people feel a great deal of ownership. When this become excessive, managers have trouble letting go.
  2. Fear of failure: Managers are acutely aware of being measured. They feel intense pressure to produce short term results.
  3. Role confusion: Managers like getting their hands dirty, doing "real work" rather than facilitating, developing or coordinating the efforts of others. They don't understand the managerial role or don't want to stop what they did in the past.
  4. Needing answers: Constant requests from stakeholders for answers drives managers to stay on top of details. As a result, they don't feel confident unless they know everything, which drives them into excessive detail, making it hard to delegate fully.

Here's how to address each of these barriers in turn:

  1. Excessive ownership: The truth is that you can achieve more through shared ownership. Too much ownership on your shoulders can burn you out while disempowering everyone else. Why should your team members care if you are doing all the worrying for the entire team? Saying you don't trust your team members to take responsibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's because you hog all the ownership that your team members don't care.
  2. Fear of failure: You are more likely to fail by trying to do it all yourself, so this outlook is self-defeating. Stress undermines concentration leading to mistakes. By involving others, you not only spread the task load, you spread ownership. Let others worry about their part. Help them feel the same level of responsibility you feel.
  3. Role confusion: Increased responsibility can lead to greater anxiety to perform which in turn could drive you to do it all. To succeed as a manager, you need to shift the basis of your confidence from doing tasks to facilitative skills. This means facing up to possible loss of functional skills, but it is better to make a clear choice than sit on the fence thus confusing both yourself and your team.
  4. Needing answers: This is about managing expectations. If you position yourself  as a facilitator, catalyst, coach and developer of others, someone who genuinely relies on others to perform, it is important to make that clear to stakeholders. Make them understand that if you had all the answers you wouldn't need a team. Train them to expect you to get back to them as soon as you have consulted your team members on their question.

Effective Delegation

Do you have an all-or-nothing approach to delegation? You feel that you must do it yourself or totally turn it over to a team member. But the latter amounts to abdication, not delegation or management. So, how can you delegate without losing control?

To reassure yourself that team members are on the right track, ask them to tell you how they plan to carry out the task. Get them to talk you through the steps, possible obstacles and how they would address them. Ask questions rather than telling them what to do as they won't listen to all the details anyway. By listening to their approach, you can assess their plan and likelihood of success. More importantly, you can guide them before they start.

The second step is to agree regular follow-up. How often, what means and how long depends on the importance of the task, the risk of getting it wrong and the competence of the team member. During each review session, get the employee to first state what has gone well, then what hasn't and finally what needs to be done about the latter. Asking them to state what went well first is a great way to celebrate success.

The more you are in listening mode the more you are allowing the employee to take ownership. Conversely, the more you tell the employee what to do, the more you retain ownership on your shoulders. This is self-defeating.

Delegate Positively

When delegating, don't say: "I know you are busy, but could you do this for me?" By apologizing, you convey the impression that you are dumping a burden on the employee, not a very motivating tactic. Find out what team members are good at, want to learn or do more of so that you can present delegated tasks as opportunities instead of burdens.

Rather than just delegating menial tasks, try to give them things to do that will develop them, jobs that will stimulate and stretch them without going beyond their limits. To develop successors, delegate significant projects so team members can learn your role.

By delegating more, you can achieve great things. But it doesn't mean that you will be doing less because, as you shift the basis of your role, you will be investing more time in coaching and developing team members to accomplish even more through them.

This article was published in The Canadian Manager, Vol 35, No. 4, Winter 2011.

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