As an executive coach, I often encounter leaders who don't delegate well. Typically, they fall into one of these categories:
- Hoarder. Lacking confidence in their ability to delegate or in their employees' ability to deliver, hoarders keep everything as close to the vest as possible. Then they complain of being overburdened, not getting things done and never having enough time.
- Dump delegator. With little or no direction, dump delegators drop the assignment in the employee's lap, somehow expecting him or her to read the boss's mind. Dump delegators are seldom pleased with the results, so they dump criticism on the employee as well.
- Micromanager. Micromanagers don't just delegate the "what," they also delegate the "how" in excruciating detail. They leave the employee no room for thought, initiative or creativity. Ironically, micromanagers often become frustrated with their employees' lack of zest or commitment.
A Bible Lesson in Effective Delegation
The Book of Genesis tells the story of the Israelite Joseph, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph subsequently gets thrown into prison, where he impresses fellow inmates with his ability to interpret dreams. Years later, the Pharaoh of Egypt learns of Joseph's ability. He summons the Hebrew slave from the dungeon to interpret two disturbing dreams.
Joseph explains that Pharaoh's dreams foretell seven years of wealth followed by seven years of famine so severe that they will leave no trace of the prior abundance. Impressed, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of developing and executing a conservation plan. It's so successful that "the whole world" comes to Egypt for famine relief.
Here are the key elements of the story that point to effective delegation.
Delegate the what and the why, not the how. "Let Pharaoh appoint overseers and organize the land of Egypt. … Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered and let the grain be collected," Joseph said.
Pharaoh gives Joseph the "what" (to come up with a plan) and the "why" ("so that the land may not perish in the famine"). But he leaves to Joseph the "how" of creating and executing a conservation plan. He doesn't micromanage Joseph. Instead, he lets Joseph develop and execute the details of the plan.
Choose wisely. And Pharaoh said to his ministers: "Could we find another like him? ... There is none so discerning and wise as [him]."
Before delegating responsibility to preserve Egypt's future, Pharaoh carefully considers the question of who would be most appropriate to assume this critical task. Rather than wing it, he puts the delegation question to his advisors to help ensure he makes a good choice.
These verses demonstrate the importance of the supervisor taking the time to consider the most appropriate person to whom the delegation should be made. Questions to ask: Which of my employees is best qualified or most capable of delivering the desired results? Which of my employees would benefit most from the experience of being trusted with an important new responsibility? In terms of organizational harmony and sense of fairness, which employee should be given the opportunity?
Giving careful thought to these questions greatly improves the odds of a successful selection.
Delegate authority commensurate with responsibility. Pharaoh tells Joseph, "You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed."
Pharaoh avoids a common management mistake: Rather than just delegating responsibility, he also delegates the authority necessary to get the job done properly. One accompanies the other.
Reserve overall authority. "Only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you." Pharaoh gives Joseph a tremendous amount of power yet simultaneously delivers the message that he's still the overall boss.
When delegating authority, make its boundaries clear.
Stay humble. Joseph responds, "Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare." By the time of his elevation, Joseph had developed a great deal of humility. When given praise and recognition by Pharaoh, Joseph gives credit elsewhere, taking none for himself.
It's important the supervisor make clear that the delegate should not let the delegation go to his or her head. Otherwise, co-workers and others may become alienated and the delegation will be less successful than it otherwise would have been. Without humility, even if the delegation is successful, there may be negative fallout.
Make the delegation clear to others. "Pharaoh put his signet ring on Joseph's hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. … He had him ride in his second-in-command chariot."
Pharaoh demonstrates an understanding of an essential ingredient of effective delegation: not only must the delegator and the delegate know about it, but others need to know as well. Pharaoh goes to great lengths to communicate to his people that Joseph has this new role. He ensures that there will be no confusion or misunderstanding regarding Joseph's position.
Make sure the delegate retains responsibility "And when all the land of Egypt felt the hunger, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, 'go to Joseph.' "
Despite the delegation, the responsibility often ends up back on the boss. This may be because of the boss, the delegate or other employees.
Pharaoh avoids this problem. Responsibility for dealing with the famine has been delegated to Joseph; Pharaoh keeps the focus there.
Reward and recognize success. Pharaoh tells Joseph, "I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land."
Pharaoh shows his savvy in not forgetting to recognize and reward his subordinate for successfully accomplishing the mission. Joseph gets the job done and receives honor and rewards for doing so. Pharaoh doesn't lose sight of who brought success to his country and to himself.
As a boss, you don't necessarily have to give the employee the fat of the land. However, don't take credit for what's been accomplished. You'll motivate your employee to do even more for you—and you'll motivate other employees to step up with similar zest, commitment and initiative.