I’ve yet to meet an experienced manager, director, or executive who could not tell me the value of delegating. Most people know that when tasks are assigned, time is freed up to spend on the business, (not in the business). Also, people realize that delegating to others is an opportunity to develop bench-strength and organizational capability.

If senior people understand the value of delegation, why then is it not happening more?

Whether I’m coaching executives or team forums, one of the most frequent questions I get is: Don, how can I convince the CEO to give me more responsibility or, Don, I’m worried about delegating something this important. Isn’t it less risky to do myself?

There are good articles out there about the virtues of delegating. In the HBR article, to be a great leader you have to learn how to delegate well, Jesse Sostrin says…”The upper limit of what’s possible [with your leadership] will increase only with each collaborator you empower to contribute their best work to your shared priorities. Likewise, your power decreases with every initiative you unnecessarily hold on to”. This makes sense, but I doubt many will delegate more after reading it.

This got me wondering. What really gets in the way of people delegating?

To Delegate Is To Trust:

I was curious. What is the definition of the word, delegate?
Delegate: To entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person, typically one who is less senior (experienced, skilled) than oneself: she delegates routine tasks—the power delegated to him must never be misused.

This definition points to the source of what it means to be able to delegate—to entrust others with something for which you are responsible.

An Issue of Trust:

It could be that people find it really hard to trust others. At least it’s hard to trust others to handle a task with your own standard of care. Those who find it hard to delegate reason they’d rather work longer hours and feel assured.

Want to get better at delegating? Then take care of your background concern of not trusting others.

Address The Elements Of Trust:

Trust in a managerial context can be distinguished along three dimensions.

  1. The degree to which you have faith in the person’s competence to do the job.
  2. The degree to which the person is accountable (is willing to deliver results on time).
  3. The degree to which the person will care about the task as much as you.

Your evaluation of where a person sits on each of the dimensions, (competence, ability to deliver, and willingness to care), for any given task will give you the strategy on how to delegate.

So the question is not Should I delegate this task to this person? but more accurately: Given where the employee sits on each of the dimensions, how hands-on or hands-off should I be?

Hands-On or Hands-Off:

Consider that delegating something to someone is not a binary act. Consider that it has a continuum of its own based on your level of trust. If my trust levels are low, then I would need to be more hands-on with the person (give more detail, have more check-ins, retain decision rights). If my trust levels are high, then I can be more hands-off (provide less detail, check-in less and perhaps even hand over some decision-making).

Matching your approach to the task and person sets them up for success (one of the factors that would have them care) while at the same time gives you confidence the job will be done well and to your own standards.

On one end of the spectrum, where I experience high levels of comfort with the person’s ability, I could adopt a more hands-off approach. In this scenario, I may only need to share the what, why, and when of the project or task. I could also hand over decision rights and check-in less frequently.

If on the other hand, my level of comfort with the person’s skill or experience with the task was low, or if they were unsure in their own ability, (a typical reason for lack of motivation), then I’d adopt a more hands-on approach. In this scenario, I would not only share the what, why, and when, I may even be very descriptive in the how. I may need to check on progress more often and retain all decision rights.

Real Life Example:

When I was responsible for rebuilding the infrastructure in Liberia after its two-decade civil war I had the good fortune to work with an amazing field manager.

Ken was an expert road builder and he loved it.

When delegating to him the construction of 100 miles of road the conversation went like this, “Hey, Ken. I need you to re-build the road from Monrovia to Buchanan. Assess the situation and come back to me with a plan. When can you let me know your initial proposals?”.

Other than some technical specs I didn’t have to share with him much more. With Ken and road building, I had a high degree of comfort and so could be completely hands-off.

With Ken and budgeting, however, it was a different story.

Because of Ken’s competence in other areas, I assumed I could be hands-off with him on everything. When he was not delivering the budget on time and with the job not completed, I got frustrated. I challenged Ken on this and he confessed that he didn’t know how to do it and didn’t want to disappoint me by saying so.

Ah-ha. Once I realized Ken’s lack of budget experience, I adopted a more hands-on approach. I spent a few hours teaching him how to develop a budget and set up a few review meetings to track progress.

After a few of these meetings, Ken was feeling more confident. I could tell his budget projections were on track, so I started to ease up on the check-ins but remained close to him for any capital decisions.

Paradoxically, this micro-management was exactly what Ken needed—he was glad for the support and the project ended up being a success.

Should I Delegate Is Not The Right Question:

Rather than should I delegate, the better question is, What approach can I take in delegating things successfully to others? A range of approaches are available to you. Here’s another way to think about your approach: How hands-on or off should I be for this particular job with this particular employee?

In my next blog, I will provide the various conversation structures you can use in your delegating conversations, including directing, guiding, coaching, and advising.

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