HR Magazine, January 2002: The Art of Delegating


By Jan 1, 2002

HR Magazine, January 2002

Vol. 47, No.1

Effective delegation enhances employee morale, manager productivity and organizational success.

This is an uncertain time for businesses. Change is constant, timetables are shorter, and the ability to deliver results is paramount. Many business executives and managers respond by taking on more responsibility and more work.

But that reaction is counterproductive. When the pressure is on, delegating is the most crucial leadership skill.

First and foremost, leaders should provide the tools, motivation and direction for individuals to help meet the organization’s goals. Effective delegating yields several immediate benefits for managers and the entire organization. It allows managers to mobilize resources and achieve better results than they could have alone. By sharing responsibilities, managers can focus on doing a few tasks well, rather than many things less effectively. As a result, they increase their management and leadership potential, while training others to succeed them.

For the organization, delegation increases productivity and opens up new lines of communication. It engages employees and encourages them to speak up and offer ideas to improve the work process. It improves overall decision-making, which lets the organization become more responsive—a real competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.

Clearly, there are tasks that managers should not delegate, such as performance reviews, strategic planning and employee discipline. Otherwise, the rule is simple—delegate when you need something done and when someone else can do it.

Two Types

There are two types of delegating that managers need to consider before passing the workload to their employees: delegating for results and delegating for employee development.

Delegating for results works best when an employee knows which results are required and has the ability to determine what the assignment should look like and how to accomplish it. The task may fall into a specified area of expertise and, therefore, gets assigned to a specific person. For example, the job may be collecting financial information for a quarterly management meeting. This is a clearly defined task that can be assigned to an employee with the skills necessary to accomplish the job. Once the assignment is delegated, the employee has full authority to collect the data and put it into the desired format. When delegating for results, the employee is usually responsible for the outcome

The other type, delegating for development, is used when a manager assigns a task to an employee who might not be the best suited for the job but who is nonetheless up to the challenge. In this case, the employee gains invaluable experience and knowledge for the future, providing him or her an opportunity to grow. The manager must make a significant investment of time and energy to ensure that the employee will succeed. For example, the manager may ask an aspiring new hire to assist in gathering information to prepare the annual strategic plan. This is an assignment that can be broken into pieces so the employee can learn about the business and expand his skills. When delegating for development, the manager is ultimately responsible for the outcome.

When Delegation Fails

Although effective delegation is recognized as one of the skills of exceptional leaders, many managers hesitate to assign tasks to others. Even when they have the best of intentions, their inability to plan or to let go can create real problems in the workplace.

Generally, there are three main reasons why delegation fails:

Lack of planning. There are myriad reasons why managers don’t take the time needed to plan and think things through. Outside factors such as a fluctuating economy and organizational shifts pressure managers into acting in a reactionary, crisis mode. They don’t dedicate time for thoughtful reflection when, in fact, that is where it is most needed.

Another reason delegating may fail is when managers decide it is easier to do the work themselves. Too often they don’t step back and look at all the activities and tasks they perform. Believing it is faster and easier to do what’s familiar to them, they use their time ineffectively, negatively affecting their overall success.

The best advice for managers is that taking time saves time. A couple of hours of careful planning spread out over a month can help them prepare for and deal with difficult situations.

To plan your delegating strategy, write a list of all the major projects for which your team is responsible. Decide which tasks only you can do, such as performance appraisals, disciplining employees or handling situations that are politically sensitive or confidential. Decide which of the remaining tasks are high priority and high risk, and thus must be done within a short timeline. Be realistic. Not everything has to be done immediately.

Next, determine which tasks can be given to others on the team. Are certain items recurring or routine, such as monthly sales reports, budgeting or activity reports? Someone else can handle those duties. One point of caution: Provide adequate training on how the project should be done and, more importantly, clearly explain the goal.

In delegating responsibility, managers always should look for opportunities to encourage employee development. Get your team members involved in learning new things and accepting developmental projects. If you establish a learning environment, you will, in effect, be training the person who succeeds you when you move up in the organization.

It’s important that you don’t mistake delegating for dumping. Studies show that employees are highly motivated when they have challenging assignments and variety in their work. Conversely, morale will sink if employees feel you’re taking advantage of them.

Make certain you track all assigned projects. Keep a list of the assignments and write down agreed-upon check-in points. A 15-minute meeting with your staff on the delegated projects can ensure that everything is on track and can head off potential problems. ·

Lack of communication. Effective delegation is a skill. And like any skill, it must be learned and practiced. There are clear steps to effective delegation. It’s not just “Do what I tell you to do.” Here are some suggestions to help prepare your employees to succeed:

  • Always start with the end in mind. Take time to communicate with your employees and write down your expectations. Tell them what the end result should look like. Don’t assume they can read your mind or know what you expect.

  • Paint a big picture. Explain why the project you have delegated is important. Many employees are given a task, but the purpose is never explained within the larger context of the business. This can foster a feeling that the manager is dumping “busy” work. For example, rather than simply assigning the seemingly mundane task of gathering sales data, explain the purpose behind the request.

  • Set milestones to review employees’ progress and give them a heads-up to prepare for any foreseeable problems, such as expected difficulties in securing needed approvals or information. Write down agreed-upon dates and set up quick check-in appointments. Don’t let these fall by the wayside or assume that everything is on track. To make progress meetings part of your routine, set a dedicated time each week for check-in meetings.

  • Make sure to transfer your authority if you are assigning something you usually do yourself. For example, if you usually request certain information, let key people know that you have authorized an employee to collect the information. Send an e-mail to pave the way for your employee.

Fear of failure. Letting go is not easy. Sharing your work and responsibilities involves taking risks. Any successful manager will admit he or she was anxious when moving from a hands-on supervisor role to management. Fear of failure can inhibit managers from delegating effectively. Insecure or inexperienced managers may not accept or recognize the performance of their employees, fearing that if someone else can do the work better than they can, they open themselves up to being replaced.

Don’t worry about sharing the glory. If you help your staff look good, they will do likewise. Jack Welch, former head of GE, says his greatest pride was grooming people to become CEOs themselves. The best advice: Surround yourself with good people and get out of their way. If you don’t, the good people will move on.

Delegating for Success

As the business world continues to get more complex and competitive, demands on managers are increasing and changing. They must empower employees and then hold them more accountable. What’s more, managers must be able to maximize employees’ knowledge and experience to get the results they want.

You will discover that effective delegation will help build teams, leverage talent and sustain employee commitment and motivation.

Sharon Gazda is president of Edizen, a Springfield, Mass.-based management consulting company specializing in executive coaching and strategic HR planning for executives


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