“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things,” said Ronald Reagan. And yet, leaders and managers frequently neglect one of the most effective tools available in this pursuit – delegation.
One of the toughest transitions for managers and leaders is to go from accomplishing things on your own, to accomplishing them through others. So it’s not surprising that delegation is a perennial front-runner among common managerial struggles. Whether it’s delegating the wrong work, failing to communicate expectations, or driving people crazy with incessant follow-ups, delegation problems are a common complaint among both managers and employees.
Maybe because the typical delegation advice preaches the importance of abandoning your work – setting the stage that the laziest manager is the best manager. Which is a view that runs counter to the skills and behaviors we tend to value.
We idolize the leader who rolls up her sleeves and works alongside her employees. And we celebrate the boss who has every technical answer at the tip of his tongue.
Delegation, if taken to mean avoiding this path, isn’t something most people would aspire to.
Yet being involved is not the same as being effective – just as being busy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re productive.
As responsibilities increase, the contrast between an effective leader and an effective contributor becomes very clear – one has a hard upper limit on the amount they can accomplish.
Effective individual contributors are always limited by their own output, and the amount of time and energy that they can squeeze into this function. Yes, it’s possible to increase your output by putting in more hours and cutting distractions, but this isn’t a scalable model. And in many ways, it’s completely unsustainable in the long run.
It seems counter to the behaviors that often lead to initial success, but breaking past these individual limits only comes through empowering others to put their best work towards your priorities. As such, our effectiveness as leaders is dependent on how well we activate the resources around us.
This isn’t groundbreaking. It probably seems obvious. But people still fail to activate this power. As entrepreneur Eli Broad put it,
“The inability to delegate is one of the biggest problems I see with managers at all levels.”
The problem is that with the litany of advice and diatribe available today, we’ve overcomplicated delegation to the point of overwhelm.
Making matters worse, the typical advice on the subject is next to worthless. I saw a delegation self-assessment the other day that included the statements:
- I insist on being in complete control at all times.
- I believe my employees just aren’t capable of handling increased responsibilities.
- I view ambitious employees as a threat.
It then concluded by telling people that if they’re not properly delegating, they’re slowly killing themselves.
These assessments aren’t helpful. People don’t need a sermon on the importance of delegation. And they don’t need the pressure of hearing how hesitating to pass down a task is putting them in an early grave.
What they do need – what might be helpful – is seeing that delegation isn’t complicated. At least, it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to follow a few basic principles.
Do: Delegate worthwhile work.
Don’t: Delegate what you can eliminate.
“Delegation is to be used as a further step in reduction, not as an excuse to create more movement and add to the unimportant. Unless something is well-defined and important, no one should do it.” – Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests that we triage our work into four different quadrants, offering the Eisenhower Matrix as a tool. Essentially, it segments our responsibilities into four main areas:
- Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important
- Quadrant 2 – Important, but not Urgent
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent, but not Important
- Quadrant 4 – Neither Important nor Urgent
Our challenge is then to maximize the time we invest in important work, while developing strategies to cut out the time we spend in quadrants 3 and 4.
Unfortunately, those quadrant 4 items are typically the ones targeted for delegation. You know the type – those faux work activities that offer the impression of productivity without actually accomplishing anything meaningful.
Delegating these items may open up your schedule, but it’s really just wasting someone else’s time instead of your own.
Is this important? Can you identify the impact? If someone stopped doing it, would anyone really care?
One of the quickest ways to lose the support of your team is to make them do work that’s disconnected from the overall mission. And people rarely perform at top quality effort if they can’t see the reason for their efforts.
Delegation is intended to both increase overall productivity and develop new skills in others. Neither of these happen when we delegate down the unimportant.
Never delegate work that can be eliminated. As Peter Drucker wrote,
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
Do: Inspire peoples’ commitment.
Don’t: Rely solely on role-power.
“There’s a difference between interest and commitment, said One Minute Manager author Kenneth Blanchard. “When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.” And yet, we tend to lose sight of this fact when we’re delegating out responsibilities. We confuse delegation with task assignments. And we confuse role-power with relationship-power. All of which sacrifices the commitment – and ultimately the results – that we’re looking for.
People become interested in areas with the potential for a meaningful result. But they don’t become committed until they see how their involvement can lead to that result.
To get there, we need to help people understand both the end vision and why we’re asking them to take on this responsibility. They need to recognize that they’re in a unique position to succeed in this opportunity.
And just as important, we need to ask, not direct.
True commitment can’t be assigned. It needs to be a choice that each person takes up on their own. And because of that, it’s imperative that we give people the option of accepting delegated work.
I don’t mean to sound like a New Age hippie. The majority of jobs that managers hand out can and should be task assignments. Employees rarely have the option of saying no. And so the manager can rely on role-power to handle these actions. Asking is a nicety, not a requirement.
But delegation is different. By definition it’s work that’s outside of someone’s current responsibilities. And as such, it’s no longer a task assignment and cannot be reliant on role-power. If we expect to gain the commitment necessary, it needs to be based on relationship-power.
Most importantly, if we can’t convince people to commit to this new responsibility, there will never be a better time to find someone that will.
Do: Clearly communicate expectations.
Don’t: Assume your way is the best way.
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” – General George S. Patton
People cannot read our minds. So if we’re picturing some precise outcome, we need to let people know. Otherwise, there’s really, there’s really no excuse when the product inevitably falls short of our expectations. But other than that, we need to remember the point of delegation in the first place.
The objective of delegation is to get the work done by someone else. Not simply turning a crank or following idiot-proof procedures, but the decision-making and adaptation that comes with handling complex objectives. And as such, it’s critical that we also give people the authority to respond to different situations.
People need to understand the end vision, the quality standards, and any schedule and budgetary constraints. After that, turn them loose.
If I tell the kid down the street to mow my lawn every Thursday afternoon, he’ll mow my lawn every Thursday afternoon. If the grass burns or shoots up a foot in the span of the week, he’ll continue mowing it every Thursday afternoon. If instead I said to mow it when necessary, he can decide what’s logical based on the specific situation.
I’d prefer not to be an expert on lawn mowing. Not when I can pay someone else to do it.
Can you come up with a plan for every contingency? Can you prescribe a way to handle every potential variable? If not, delegate this to someone who’s paid to do it. And remember that none of us have a monopoly on the best ideas.
Do: Stay engaged.
Don’t: Drive people crazy.
“Picture this. I am your supervisor, and I walk over to you with pencil in hand and tell you to take it. You reach for the pencil, but I won’t let go. So I say, ‘What is wrong with you? Why can’t I delegate the pencil to you?’” – Andy Grove, High Output Management
We all have things we don’t want to delegate. Maybe we rely heavily on the results. Or take a special pride in how a certain project turns out. Most likely, it tends to be that we just like doing certain things and don’t want to let them go.
Which is fine. Life’s too short to delegate away everything that we enjoy.
But this needs to be a conscious decision. And we need to fully commit to either option – delegate or keep to ourselves.
The alternative, and a common complaint of many employees, is the manager who delegates a task but micromanages every decision. All this becomes is a charade – one that hurts your overall credibility and wastes a lot of peoples’ time.
I’m not preaching abdication. It’s essential to stay involved. Even after you delegate something, you’re still responsible for the result. And staying engaged and monitoring the progress is the only practical way to ensure a positive result. Or as Andy Grove put it,
“The presence or absence of monitoring is the difference between a supervisor’s delegating a task and abdicating it.”
But degree matters. Managers that stay too involved end up sacrificing employee commitment and autonomy. And losing out on all of the benefits that delegation is supposed to bring.
Decide early on the level of engagement that’s necessary and clearly establish this upfront. Then stick to it and let people manage the work you’re trusting them to do. In the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt,
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling while they do it.”
Do: Be willing to let people struggle.
Don’t: Hold people to your own standards for performance.
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” – C.S. Lewis
You probably have high standards – especially on work that you’ve been performing to date. So it can be challenging to remember that when we delegate a task, it does not have to be done to the level of quality that we would do it – just as well as necessary.
We should all recognize that delegated work is likely to take an initial dip in quality. If a job is going from an experienced person to someone who’s handling it for the first time, it would be naïve to expect that this won’t be the case.
At least at first. But as people become more familiar with their new role, they’ll improve. Just as we did when we initially took it on.
Struggles are a part of work. And failures are a part of learning. We cannot both shield people from every failure and expect them to learn and develop in the process. And if we’re engaged at the right level, we should be able to catch mistakes before they become catastrophic. If not, then the failure is our own.
That isn’t to excuse poor quality or declining standards. But make sure those standards fit the purpose of the job, not our own personal opinion of how well we’d do it.
If quality is an issue, bring it back to the purpose of the task. Help people understand the reasons behind these standards. And leverage their commitment to the mission to get them where they need to be. In the wise words of Orrin Woodward,
“Average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar.”
Do: Be willing to help out.
Don’t: Accept the monkey.
A classic 1974 Harvard Business Review article, Who’s Got the Monkey? discusses the danger of allowing employees to transfer their work problems to their manager.
In these instances, well-intentioned managers take on problem-solving ability once an issue arises in an employee’s job. At this point, the proverbial monkey jumps from the employee’s back to the manager’s.
It could be something as innocuous as an offer to look at something and give your recommendation. But still, that monkey is now on your back. And whatever problem or issue it represents is at a standstill until you take action.
Which may not be too bad. After all, it’s a leader’s job to help. But when this happens on multiple days across multiple employees, the manager is suddenly trying to haul around twenty monkeys on her back – a situation that leads to delays, bottlenecks, and poor overall morale.
Many people will advocate the “don’t bring me a problem without a solution” mentality as a response. But this only drives people to keep their problems hidden, often until it’s too late. A monkey running around in the shadows, creating havoc while people intentionally look the other way, isn’t the answer.
The alternative is to encourage discussions, but with an underlying message that they still have the ultimate responsibility. As the original authors, William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass phrased it,
“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem.”
One way to do this is to share guidance and support, but hold off on giving your input to a decision until people offer a clear statement of alternatives, pros and cons, and their recommendation. This way, they retain the monkey and exercise good decision-making practices.
Another is to simply be mindful of those times we all tend to accept a monkey onto our back. As results-driven people, most of us will tend to jump in and try to solve a problem as soon as we see it. The next time you find yourself taking ownership of a problem, remind yourself who really owns the issue. And reinforce that while you’re happy to help out, it’s still their problem to solve.
Putting It into Practice – Start Delegating Today
“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
As we look to expand our leadership influence, the only scalable model is to empower others to act towards our priorities and goals. Once we make this transition, there’s no limit to the level of influence – and hence, the level of accomplishment – that we can bring about.
Delegation is one of our best tools for creating this opportunity. Yet we’ve overcomplicated it to the point that people find it overwhelming, often believing that they’re just not cut out for delegation. And instead they continue to try to do everything themselves – limiting their output and burning themselves out in the process.
But it doesn’t need to be difficult. It’s not a complex concept. And there’s no reason that anyone should believe they can’t develop this skill with some practice.
It’s just something that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And as such, requires some practice to get used to it. With a couple of key principles:
- First eliminate. Then delegate.
- Gain commitment through agreement.
- Clearly lay out expectations.
- Let people develop their own methods – and struggle (learn) in the process.
- Be willing to help without taking responsibility for other peoples’ problems.
So start today. And you’ll quickly realize that it’s a much better option than continuing to shoulder everything yourself.