Chinese philosopher Xun Kuang, 3rd century BCE:
Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I learn.
Effective delegation can be one of the most difficult skills for managers to learn. On the typical promotion path, an individual contributor does such a great job that he or she is rewarded with a position that includes direct reports. But people who are newly promoted to manager positions don’t suddenly have all the knowledge and skills they need to delegate well (even though some may have an aptitude for it). Much of delegation needs to be learned on the job.
How do you know whether you’re delegating effectively?
A hasty departure by the Gen Zers or Millennials in your workforce can certainly indicate that something is amiss. And if your Generation X or Boomer employees won’t make decisions and instead defer to you on next steps, that may mean that it’s time to reconsider how you delegate at work.
The challenge with managing is to be able to let employees tackle projects as they see fit. A lot of managers think they are delegating when they’re actually just telling their employees the exact steps to follow in order to complete a project. That’s not delegating—that’s assigning tasks. A project that is truly delegated to another person empowers him or her in these three key areas:
- Authority: In the delegation process, managers tend to struggle most with ceding authority. As the assigned project progresses, it’s important to allow employees to make decisions—and if there aren’t any decisions for them to make, then you’ve probably assigned tasks and not actually delegated. When coaching new managers, ask them to keep in mind the project’s ultimate goal and consider how to achieve it. If multiple routes lead to the same outcome, allow your employee to choose his or her own route, because that decision-making process is where he or she will actually learn.
- Responsibility: Managers must let employees figure out how to accomplish projects on their own. This doesn’t mean telling an employee how to do a project; rather, it means making the employee responsible for determining how to achieve the goal. Should you refrain from providing input or offering suggestions? Of course not. But if you’re still dictating the how-tos of a project, then your employee is not fully responsible for it—and you haven’t fully delegated it.
- Accountability: When you’ve assigned projects (or even tasks) to your direct reports, you must hold them accountable for getting them done on time, within budget, and to the quality standards you’ve established. If problems arise, that doesn’t mean you should jump in and resolve them yourself; instead you should provide feedback and coaching to help the employee get back on track. Sometime, when a project just isn’t going well, you may have to take it back from an employee (I have had to do this myself), because as the manager you are the one who’s ultimately accountable for it. If you have to resort to that course of action, thoroughly evaluate how you prepared the employee to take on the assignment. What could you have done better? How could you have coached him or her to succeed (without getting too involved yourself)? If an employee repeatedly fails to meet expectations, then perhaps the bulk of the problem lies with him or her. But first ask yourself how you contributed to his or her inability to get the job done.
Encouraging Personal Accountability
If you’re a new boss and everyone is still trying to figure out your management style, you may find your staff reluctant (or unable) to assume full responsibility, authority, and accountability for projects you delegate to them. Any time you delegate, one of your goals should be to push your employees outside their comfort zones and encourage them to come up with next steps and solutions on their own.
When teaching employees of all ages how to accept delegation, don’t just tell them what to do next; instead, have everyone brainstorm for solutions together. Filling a whiteboard with potential solutions can really get the creative juices flowing, inspiring everyone to come up with new and terrific ideas. Brainstorming like this with employees a few times helps them learn how to brainstorm on their own so that they need your help only for narrowing down which possibility to pursue. (At that point, once they’ve already done the “heavy lifting,” you can brainstorm with them about the pros and cons of the top three options.)
By helping employees practice and strengthen the responsibility, authority, and accountability they need to successfully complete delegated projects, this process teaches them how to make decisions and continue to move forward on their own. Eventually, as employees work on these skills, you’ll notice that they have fewer questions for you and can complete projects with greater speed and independence.
At this point it’s important to clarify that delegation is not the same as dumping a project onto an employee (whether a novice learning new skills or a seasoned veteran) and never checking in with him or her about it again. Nor is delegation the same as abdicating responsibility for a project. Because your employees’ performance always reflects on you and your ability to engage and motivate, you will always be the only who’s ultimately accountable for their actions. Therefore you need to stay involved in every project you delegate (to the point where it’s clear that you still care—but not so much that you’re micromanaging).
7-Step Process for Effective Delegation
Effective delegation requires managers to learn to let go—to step back and let employees do their jobs without too much intervention. Work through this list of questions to make sure that you’re delegating properly and giving your employees the information and tools they need to complete their assignments well.
- Which one project or task can you delegate in the next week? This cannot be a menial assignment; choose something of importance.
- To whom on your staff will you delegate the project? What do you want them to learn from this experience? Discussing with your employees what they will gain from being in charge of a project will help engage and motivate them, particularly if they run into problem while working on the assignment.
- What outcome do you desire, and when does it need to be completed? Be specific when defining your parameters and convey this information clearly so your employees understands exactly what you expect.
- What information do your employees need to know in order to start on this project? Don’t tell your employees how to do the project; instead, let them suggest how they plan to tackle it.
- What decisions can your employees make without consulting with you? Push yourself not to micromanage here. Give your employees the responsibility and authority to accomplish this project on their own.
- When (and in what form) do you want updates? If the update mentions problems, ask your employees to come up with solutions. Coach them to come with possible options (rather than just ask you how to proceed).
- What happens if your employees fall behind? Don’t automatically take over the project to get it back on track. Instead, focus your efforts on coaching your employees so that they can get things back on track (and then do more frequent check-ins on the project’s progress).
If you’re saying to yourself,
“Delegation seems like a lot of work,”
you’re right. But there are many good reasons to delegate, including this one (which is perhaps at the top of the list): it frees you up to think strategically and focus on the bigger issues of running a department.
How easily do you get lost in the day-to-day details? If you’re overwhelmed with projects or tasks because you’re not effectively delegating to your staff, it can be extremely difficult to step back and see the big picture. When you focus too much on your department’s tactical concerns and not enough on its strategic role in helping the company achieve its financial goals, you can end up hurting not only your company and your department but your own career, too. So make sure that effective delegation is at the top of your to-do (well) list.