2001 Volume 4 Issue 3

The Fine Art of Delegation

The Fine Art of Delegation

Most employees want more responsibility...Here's how to give it to them.

Tips for delegating tasks and keeping them delegated including ways to prepare yourself and your subordinates.

Delegation is the process of assigning a project or activity to someone else, and sharing the responsibility for its outcome. The importance of delegation is often understood, but the steps involved in doing it successfully may not be so clear. Delegation allows you to perform your job better. It is the key that allows you to spend more time managing and less time on repetitive, non-essential tasks. Delegation also prepares you to be delegated to…Preparing you for greater responsibility and higher levels of experience.

Further, delegation trains others for the opportunity to move into your job when you are on vacation or for other reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it prepares your possible replacement for the time when you are ready to move up or out for more responsibility. Delegation may be the most important skill a manager can develop.

Preparing for Delegation

There are two sides to the delegation preparation process. First, a manager must be prepared to let go of the need to implement the actual project itself, and second, the subordinate(s) must be prepared to accept it. Let’s face it. No one can do your job as well as you can, particularly if he or she is not trained to do so. As a result, you may fail to take the time for developing a strategy to effectively delegate tasks and projects.

Delegation is not simply asking somebody to perform an activity to help you finish your project. Certainly, there are times when you will ask someone else to copy a document or make a telephone call for you, or even perform tasks of a delicate and complicated nature. But true delegation requires that you actually give over the responsibility for the whole task or project, along with the necessary authority to get it done.

Here are a few of the symptoms that may indicate to you the need to sharpen your delegation skills:

No time to plan. First and foremost, planning requires the ability to decide what is important–in other words, the ability to prioritize. The more you have to do, the higher the probability is that you will focus your attention on just putting out the next fire. As a manager you need to create a broader horizon for yourself than that. Delegating can create windows of time that you can use to plan the direction that you and your group are heading.

Not enough time to return telephone calls and e-mail. Somehow, most of us seem to be able to return the messages we want to, or have to. Not responding to others creates a barrier that can inhibit your ability to get recognized or promoted for the good work you do. Try blocking out a period of time on your daily calendar that is exclusively used to return messages.

No time to see people on business matters. Allocate time in your calendar every day for appointments with others. Give somebody else the responsibility for maintaining that block of time for you. That way you can keep it clear from other tasks.

Missing deadlines. This can be dangerous to your organizational future, and in some cases can be a career killer. Unless you are really self-destructive, you’ll want to do anything to avoid this. Learning to delegate properly is an easy solution.

Doing the job you got promoted from. Many managers feel that since they were promoted for doing a good job in their previous position, they must continue doing the work for which they were recognized. If you get promoted to a position that oversees what you previously did, your first task is to properly train a replacement. If you don’t have a replacement, then you haven’t really been promoted. You have simply been given more responsibility.

Working many nights and weekends-no time for yourself. Sometimes it is helpful to look into exactly why you are in this predicament. It is not unheard of for some managers to use their heavy workload as a way to avoid being other places they’d rather not be or to avoid doing things they’d rather not be doing. When that’s the case, not delegating may appear be the better solution. But remember, the stressors that build up when using work as an escape hatch can be hazardous to your health! If, after examining the facts, you don’t seem to fit into this avoidance category, then delegation is a way to free up your time.

You’ll notice that almost all of these symptoms involve time. That is why delegation is so crucial for good management-it creates time for you to do what you are (or should be) getting paid for-managing people. But your willingness to let go of some of the work is only half the story.

Developing Willing Employees

Employees cannot be expected to take responsibility for work they have not been trained to do. An effective manager of people starts out early by selecting people that can be trained to take more responsibility. This training is done by first giving small amounts of responsibility to a worker or a team of workers, monitoring their progress, and making corrections where necessary.

In some situations, reorganizing your group’s work assignments may go hand in hand with selecting the proper people with whom to begin the delegation process. First, do a study of the group’s workload as a whole. The idea is to find out how work is now allocated and how much time is available to do new, developmental tasks. It’s a good idea to involve the group in this process by having them meet together with you to create a work flow diagram, and for each member to assess the time it takes for him or her to do their portion. Letting the group decide how to reallocate work so that the unit can run more efficiently is often a good idea.

Delegate Duties for Training

It has been shown that about 75 percent of employees want more responsibility. It is important, however, that this increased responsibility leads to something positive for them. New assignments, then, should encompass as much skill development as possible. The following are three delegation criteria that could be beneficial for employee development:

  1. Delegate assignments that he or she needs to strengthen special weaknesses. Nobody is likely to have just the right mix of skills to do a delegated assignment exactly to your liking. By selecting the proper assignment to delegate, you can help a subordinate correct weaknesses and develop compensatory skills.
  2. Delegate a variety of duties to test your employee’s versatility and add interest to his or her job. Variety in a job makes it more interesting. Too many details can overburden and kill interest altogether, however, so add spice carefully.
  3. Delegate duties that could lead directly to promotion. Everyone performs better when they know that their performance may lead to better things.

Three-Stage Delegating

The usual method of delegating is the sink-or-swim method. “Here’s the job. Let’s see if you can handle it.” Done this way, the odds are you will get a sinker. A better method is to be a coach. Coaches neither run onto the field to take over the job nor do they leave the players to their own devices. They offer expertise, new methods, continual training, support and pep talks. They want everyone to be a winner. Coaches get their satisfaction from putting the team together and standing behind it.

Plan your delegating just as you would any other important training function of the company. Use the act of delegating as a training function, preparing team members to take on added responsibility. When the goals and the ways to reach them have been agreed upon, step aside and wait for the first report. Not everyone is ready to take on a fully delegated task. Classify your people into these three categories and delegate accordingly.

  1. Hand Holding. New or untried people in your organization don’t want to be thrown to the wolves and you would probably be uncomfortable letting them go unsupervised on a newly delegated task. For a time, until you are both comfortable, be a partner in the task, participating in the decisions, checking along the way. Do this in your best participative style, remembering that the purpose of this relationship is to train members of the group to carry the ball on their own.
  2. Consulting. When you and they both feel ready, let them go off on their own. Let them feel free to come to you whenever they want help and information. Use your best coaching techniques, but remain outside the project, only responding when called upon. This gives your people the feeling of being supported without constricting their style.
  3. Hands Off. This is for employees who feel confident in their abilities and whom your really trust to do the job right. Delegate the total project and step aside. This is your chance to get back to more creative work. Wait for results.

Last, and by no means least, praise people for doing a good job! Whenever you can, find a reason to be supportive and do it in a clear way. Telling employees they are doing a job well is one of the most important things you can do. Many managers find this difficult; others forget to do it. The most common complaint from employees is, “My boss doesn’t acknowledge when I do a good job.” Nothing gets results faster than honest praise. Practice it regularly.

Keep The Assignment Delegated!

One of the most common reasons for the delegation process to fail is that the manager takes the work back! This must be avoided. Once you take back a delegated assignment, it increases the odds that other delegated work will end up back on your desk. Here are some of the reasons managers take back delegated work. Many of these can be avoided with proper preparation.

The scope of the project was not properly outlined. Don’t hand off an assignment until you are sure that every question the employee has been answered. The better you planned and prepared your briefing, of course, the fewer but more precise questions you will get.

The employee loses confidence in his or her ability to do the assignment. Remember, it is your job to be supportive and available if you want delegation to work. This may be the case if this is the first time that your delegatee has been asked to take responsibility and work independently. Handholding is critical here. Sincere praise can work wonders in these situations as well.

The manager didn’t really delegate the project. You must be sure that your subordinate takes ownership of this project. Encourage them to search for solutions to the problems that inevitably come up, and be available to answer questions. They should be aware that the responsibility for the assignment’s completion belongs to them.

The assignment went to the wrong person. Occasionally you can make a mistake in matching people to projects. Rather than taking it back, assign it to somebody else and prepare another more suitable assignment for the person for whom it was a mismatch. If you have prepared well, this will rarely happen.

The Last Step

The process of delegation accomplishes two tasks that are essential to becoming a better manager. The first is that it gets your desk clear for you to perform more managerial and fewer clerical or routine tasks. Second, it creates an opportunity for you to interact with your employees on a less structured and routine basis, opening the door for more motivational interactions and training. Needless to say, there is no effective delegation without proper follow-up. You will need to evaluate the improvement in your delegation skills on an ongoing basis.

It may take awhile for your employees to get used to this new way of doing things, so you may be more involved as you get things off the ground. But be patient; you’ll be astonished at how quickly employees catch on to a new assignment if you have prepared them for it, and how much more pleasurable your own job becomes when you do.

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Author of the article
Richard C. Rierdan, PhD
Richard C. Rierdan, PhD
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