On the face of it, delegating work is a simple and straightforward matter: identify tasks you want someone else to carry out and tell them to get on with it. So why do many leaders and managers find it difficult and delegate insufficiently or not at all? What are their practical and attitudinal obstacles?
We delegate by assigning authority or duties to someone who acts for us. As a leadership practice, it involves allocating, entrusting and supporting others to carry out work towards fulfillment of our responsibilities. It enables us to maintain a broad strategic focus and make wise use of current capacity while simultaneously developing it.
If we withhold from those who report to us too much of the work within our responsibilities, we risk becoming increasingly tactical and non-strategic as wall-to-wall busyness and unhealthy levels of stress overwhelm or immobilise us. (The purpose of a jigsaw puzzle’s Big Picture is to help us work out how the pieces fit together, and we shouldn’t lose sight of it.) The costs include –
“. . . Less capacity for focused attention, less time for any given task, and less opportunity to think reflectively and long term.” [Tony Schwartz]
We also risk disabling our direct reports, by creating their over-reliance and unhealthy dependence upon us: learned helplessness is easily acquired.
Why not delegate?
Five common problems to interfere with this apparently simple process. The first two are linked by the third:
(1) Those who are tasked with the delegated work have little idea how to plan and execute plans. They incorrectly assume that a rough description of the broad intention (with many unclarified assumptions), coupled with a list of tasks thought likely to bring the intention to fruition, amounts to good plan-management. It doesn’t – and the success of the task delegated to them is compromised. .
(2) Those tasked with the delegated work use an ad hoc (improvised) approach to problem-solving and believe that describing a problem as the absence or insufficiency of a specific solution (e.g., “The problem is a lack of . . . They should be more efficient . . . Fix it by doing this . . .”) is part of a constructive problem-solving process. It isn’t – and problems delegated to be “fixed” often continue or recur in different guises.
(3) Those are linked to this: The usual reason these unhelpful assumptions prevail is that the person delegating also believes and models practices based on them. The eventual result, in both cases, is that the delegated tasks fail or are poorly performed. The delegator decides that “If you want something done properly, you must do it yourself” and withdraws or limits their acts of delegation from then on.
(4) Delegation works best when those delegating have systematically developed the capacity of their direct reports (and consequently have staff used to and capable of extending themselves). Too few managers value this sufficiently to do it consistently well, usually because their organisations place a greater value on achieving the Primary Task than on developing their constituents’ capacity for it, (despite claiming “Our people are our greatest asset . . “).
(5) The fifth common problem is an attitudinal one, located in the mindset, beliefs, values and other sources of perspective held by people who have authority to delegate, and should do so. They believe – consciously or sub-consciously – that they should not do so, or should delegate only very little of the work which forms a part of their responsibilities.
Why would you believe that?
Indeed, why would you? If you already know that you are barely coping with all the demands of your management and leadership responsibilities yet struggle to delegate work, you may benefit from working out why you do not. Your urgent need to delegate may be running into obstacles in the form of interior arguments you have with yourself and keep losing.
My coaching work often involves helping leaders and managers find these interior obstacles and learn how to actively counter them. Identifying and clarifying the obstacles does much to advance the second stage of this process: establishing logical counter-arguments to them.
I’ve drafted some ideas under the next sub-heading. I suggest you add your own thoughts to the list and edit the others until they more closely resemble your thought processes. Then, for each of those that are relevant, write meaningful counter-arguments. Establish which of those counter-arguments you know you need to believe more often, and bring them into focus the next time you find yourself avoiding the need to delegate.
Need help to do this? Contact Tom.
Changing your mind about delegating
To perform at the level expected of me, I need to delegate more of my responsibilities to my direct reports. However, when I consider initiating this, some of my beliefs, thoughts and ideas, inhibit me. There are likely to be rational, logical and good sense counters to these interior arguments.
Inhibiting beliefs and perspectives
|I ought to be able to manage and carry out whatever is thrown at me, unaided. To do less than this is a sign of weakness as a manager/leader at my level.|
|It would take too much effort to provide the support or training necessary for others to take over some of my duties.|
|They are likely to resist any attempts I make to have them “lift their game” by devolving these matters to them.|
|They will dislike me for taking this initiative, and my reputation will suffer.|
|If I encourage them to take over some of the tasks that currently only I perform, I will lose aspects of my prestige and weaken my position and career prospects.|
|I don’t trust that the tasks and projects will be carried out to the same standards of diligence, quality and professionalism I would impose on myself.|
|I will lose touch with everything I need to know in order to be seen as competent in my role. I could not admit to “not knowing” whatever I may be asked about my responsibilities, or having to rely on others to provide that information.|
|My staff are already over-loaded and I don’t want to increase their stress levels.|
|I should and can do it all on my own. With a little more effort and better strategy, I will be able to.|
|Everything I am paid to do should be done to the highest possible level of quality, if not perfection. I am the only person who can control this outcome, so I must hold on closely to all of my responsibilities.|
|Those who report to me have little interest in being given additional challenges.*|
|If I yield some of what gives me the appearance of constant busyness and only just keeping-on-top-of-it through prodigious or heroic effort, my standing amongst my co-workers and managers will suffer.|
|At some level I don’t really believe I am worthy of what I get paid to perform this role. My role must be and I must make sure it remains, a very challenging role in order to justify my salary.|
|It is demeaning for me to ask for help and support.|
|I’ve accepted the responsibilities of this job so I need to do everything that is required, myself. If I can’t do that I should quit.|
|[Add your own]|
* A 2011 study by workplace assessor SHL, established that 42% of New Zealand workers and 43% of Australian workers find boredom seriously lowers their job satisfaction. Both New Zealanders and Australians placed huge importance (80% in both cases) on good feedback and recognition from their managers. It’s highly likely that these two factors related to workers’ levels of engagement can be influenced with competent delegation: delegate work which challenges and extends employees, then give constructive performance feedback on their efforts.
 See Encouraging the Heart, and Criticism and Feedback in the Interpersonal Communication section of this website.