Learn How to Delegate So You, as a Manager, Can Explore Greater Pursuits

By Natalie Kroc September 15, 2020
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Learn How to Delegate So You, as a Manager, Can Explore Greater Pursuits

​As a manager, you're accountable for the work your employees do, but that doesn't mean you should do their work for them.

"A basketball coach doesn't jump out on the floor with his team and start playing," said Silver Rose, a management consultant based in Cave Creek, Ariz. Rather, a coach is on the sidelines, instructing the players and guiding them to the win.

Delegating is a management skill, and it may not be intuitive. Managers have often progressed to their role by first proving themselves to be exemplary employees, so jumping in to get the work done may come naturally.

"But if you aren't delegating, you're your own employee—and not a very good one," since you're trying to do everyone else's job instead of your own, said Michael Moore, founder of M D Moore Marketing LLC, in Cincinnati. "Management is really about getting work done through others."

Are You Delegating Enough?

If you're frequently still at work after your employees have finished for the day, that could be a sign that you should be delegating more, experts agree. You might feel frustrated, overwhelmed or like you're always falling behind. Similarly, if you can't go on vacation without logging in to your work e-mail, or if you're having problems at home because of a lack of work/life balance, these are clues that you're taking on too much.

"There's a lot of work you shouldn't be doing," said Marlon Mooijman, assistant professor of management at Rice University in Houston. "Employees have certain skill sets," she said, which they were presumably hired for, and they may sometimes know more about certain endeavors than their managers.

But many in leadership roles are reluctant to delegate. "Managers [often] don't think anyone can do the job as well as they can," said Brenda Maday, who has been an HR practitioner for 20 years and is currently based in Beaverton, Ore. "They have the years of experience, they've earned the manager title, they [think they] can do everything faster and more efficiently."

Some managers have perfectionist tendencies and balk at the thought of giving up control. Others aren't sure how to go about delegating, or they aren't convinced that investing time in training a worker will pay off.

"When you delegate, you are doing on-the-spot employee development," Rose said. "You're training them to make decisions and strategize." In return, employees stand to gain new skills and greater visibility. They will likely feel more motivated and become more engaged with the organization.

This is a chance to train and retrain employees on the skills and knowledge to succeed, Moore said. "It's an opportunity to help people who maybe haven't performed as well as they should. The employee feels empowered; he sees and feels that the manager trusts him to do a good job."

When an employee knows she has her manager's trust, it builds confidence and nourishes that working relationship. "Real trust requires vulnerability," said Mooijman, and vulnerability happens when the manager gives up responsibility for a task.

"I feel satisfied when I'm growing my employees because I feel that's my No. 1 job—to give them opportunities," Maday said. "It makes me happy when I can give someone an important project."

Delegate Tasks, Seek Greater Pursuits

Beyond the satisfaction of watching employees triumph, managers who succeed at delegating may be rewarded with the ability to focus on big-picture thinking, strategizing, creative problem-solving and higher-level issues.

"When you're hired or promoted to the role of manager, it's not for what you know but for what you can do—for your potential," said Luis Velasquez, an executive coach based in Redwood City, Calif. Managers should be asking themselves "What can I delegate so I can focus on my potential?"

Start Delegating

Take a look at your calendar for the next three to six months and make a list of tasks and projects that your team members can do. Keep an eye out for administrative tasks that may be relatively easy to pass on.

For each job that needs doing, "Your first question should be 'Whose area of responsibility is this—besides mine?' " Rose said.

Velasquez said there are two components to consider each time you delegate a task to someone: direction and support. If this is the first time an employee will be doing a particular task, he will need direction. The manager might have to invest time in training the employee—an investment that will ideally pay off once the employee is able to take on the task independently.

When a task might be outside your employee's comfort zone, acknowledge that. "Say 'I know it might be a challenge, but I trust you.' That bridges a lot of the gap," Moore said.

If an employee already has experience with this or a similar task, less direction is needed.

Support is essential whether the employee is a novice or has experience. Rose recommends giving all employees the chance to weigh in on the process of how to achieve a desired result. "People love to be asked for their input. Everyone's proud of what they know. … They want their boss to know that they know stuff. People carry out their work much better when it's their idea. Let them do it their way, even if you have a better way," because they can learn from experimenting.

Planning for Mistakes—and Success

Accept that workers will make mistakes—that's often how a person learns, Mooijman said. "The entire point of trust is accepting that an employee might not do the right thing 100 percent of the time. But if they make a mistake, you deal with it."

As the manager, you are ultimately responsible for an employee's mistake, but "My philosophy is if an employee makes a mistake, they fix it," Maday said. "We talk about it and come up with a plan to fix it."

To increase the likelihood that employees will succeed:

  • Assign projects based on your team members' strengths, weaknesses and capabilities.
  • Decide on a measurable and realistic goal.
  • Establish a timeline.
  • Build a buffer into your timeline in case a mistake is made.
  • Schedule frequent check-ins.

Above all, encourage employees to come to you with any questions and concerns. Let them know you want to be aware of problems as they occur. "The last thing anyone wants is a surprise," Velasquez said.

"Micromanagers are trying to prevent failure, but they don't, ironically, because people are too scared to tell them that things are going wrong," Mooijman said.

Provide Feedback and Recognition

Talk with your employee after he's finished a delegated task. Rose asks his reports "What did you like best about what you did? And what, if anything, would you do differently next time?" Managers can share their answers to these questions, too.

Be specific with recognition—privately with the worker and then in front of other people if the employee approves, Moore said. Don't be vague. "Specifically say why it was a great job."

You want your employees to walk away feeling capable and enthusiastic about the next project that may come their way.

"If my people are successful, the team's successful and I'm successful," Moore said.

Natalie Kroc is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. 

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