Delegation may be among the most misunderstood and mishandled of all supervisory responsibilities. Ask any employee and you’ll hear stories of managers throwing tasks "over the wall" with little or no direction or support. At the other end of the continuum is the criticisms of leaders who can’t let go and end up limiting their careers by insisting upon doing everything themselves. It’s rare to hear of the Goldilocks delegator who does it "just right."
This may be because delegation is far more complex and nuanced than most realize. Many managers perceive delegation as a monolithic supervisory responsibility, something they should be doing all the time with all of their employees. And over-simplified training that offers the "five easy steps for delegating any task" just compounds the problem.
When it comes to delegation, the focus is typically on the "how" -- the mechanics of the conversation designed to transfer authority, responsibility, and the process for performing a particular task. As a result, what gets dangerously little attention is the "what" -- what job, task, step, or responsibility is being delegated and why. Get that right and the rest (the delegation conversation, the monitoring, and ultimately the results) will go much more easily.
Not all delegated tasks are created equal
Selecting the right job or task to delegate is a hallmark of highly effective leadership. And it’s based upon an appreciation of two dimensions of the task: frequency and complexity. This table outlines the four possible responses to a delegation opportunity.
- Do it: Contrary to what many believe, not every task should be delegated. If the task is simple and it rarely needs to be done, smart managers follow Nike’s advice and "just do it." Given today’s busy workplace, sometimes it really is quicker and easier for a manager to do something herself. If the task won’t need to be done again for some time, it’s more efficient to handle it personally rather than teach someone else to do it only to allow them to forget it by the next time it needs to be done.
- Delegation: When a task is not complex but must be done more frequently, it is an ideal one for classic delegation. It makes sense to invest in helping someone learn to perform a task well that must be repeated over time. Repetition allows the employee to develop confidence and competence, and frees up the manager to handle more strategic activities.
- Development partnership: Some tasks don’t need to be completed frequently and are highly complex. They may require multiple cycles to master. If the interval between opportunities to perform the task is long, employees won’t get a chance to practice what they’ve learned. As a result, knowledge and ability fade. While these tasks may not lend themselves to delegation, effective managers use them as opportunities to develop others by including them in the work. These meaty assignments allow employees to gain greater perspective, expand their capacity, and enjoy greater exposure to their leaders. And the supervisor benefits from additional help and the chance to work closely with employees, assessing their capacity and readiness for new roles and responsibilities.
- Developmental delegation: When the task is complex and must be repeated frequently, this is an ideal opportunity to help others grow while addressing business needs. Managers may need to invest heavily in teaching, coaching and monitoring, but they’ll be rewarded because the employee will have sufficient opportunity to master the work and make significant contributions.
Conducting a quick assessment of the task, job or responsibility is the first and most critical step when considering delegation. Understanding the what from a complexity and frequency standpoint informs who is best suited for the job as well as how the leader must approach the delegation conversation and follow-up required for success. And all that’s left is, why haven’t we been doing this all along?
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.
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