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Delegation is a Flawed Concept

Delegation is a Flawed Concept

Liane Davey creates powerful changes in top teams. The bestselling author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, Liane’s mission is to radically transform the way people communicate, connect, and contribute, so they can achieve amazing things together. Her approach combines a keen expertise in strategy with her deep insight into group dynamics to increase the value organizations get from teamwork and collaboration. Liane looks at why the idea of delegating is not always a good one:

Last week, I heard a leadership consultant say “delegation is a flawed concept.” It caused me to pause and reconsider my constant pleas for leaders to delegate more. Is it possible that delegation is a bad strategy, or is it a good plan that’s poorly executed? I think it’s the latter, what do you think?

The Purpose of Delegation

Google says that to delegate is to “entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person, typically one who is less senior than oneself.” That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Entrusting your team to do without your direct involvement. The definition didn’t say that to delegate is to dump, fob-off, neglect, abuse, or engage in dereliction of duty. So far, so good.

Delegation has an important purpose for the manager (and the organization). If the structure is designed well, there should be only enough managers to do the work of managing (anticipating, planning, allocating, measuring, coaching, course correcting, etc.). Using your time to do work that could be done by an individual contributor (because it doesn’t include one of these unique management functions) is a sub-optimal use of your time—and your time is a scarce resource.

Delegation isn’t just good for the manager, it’s important for the direct report too. When the right work is delegated, it provides a safe opportunity for team members to practice new skills and take on more responsibilities while still having the support and oversight of their manager. Most people like to be entrusted with things, it’s good for engagement and provides a sense of value and worth.

So why did the leadership consultant think delegation was a flawed construct?

Probably because managers get delegation wrong as much as they get it right. There are perilous ditches on both sides of the road to effective delegation. On one side, some leaders fail to delegate sufficiently. They cling on to work that they enjoy or feel competent at, refusing to come to terms with the shift from doing to leading. Too little delegation is also a hallmark of the driver type who thinks it’s faster to do it himself than to take the time required to teach someone else. Delegation is less expedient in the short-term and this manager never thinks beyond the short term. Either way, the leader who fails to delegate is little more than an overpaid individual contributor.

On the other side, there’s the risk of the leader who doesn’t so much delegate as dump work on his overburdened team. This leader thinks delegation is forwarding an email without context or direction. The over-delegator pays no attention to the level of the work or the skills required to complete it successfully. Nope, the only question is whether she can find someone else to do it, so she won’t be late for lunch at the club.

If one was to measure the value of delegation only from how it’s currently practiced, it would be reasonable to conclude that delegation doesn’t work. Poor execution does not mean it’s a bad strategy. It just means we need more effort in getting delegation right.

Here are a few things to include in your delegation:

  • I selected this task because it doesn’t need to be done by someone at my level
  • I chose a delegate that I believe is able to succeed
  • I provided context and relevant background about the task and the stakeholders
  • I defined clearly what success would look like
  • I gave boundaries to help the person know if they are getting off track
  • I checked-in regularly, asking open questions to gauge their progress and comfort
  • I left room for the person to accomplish the objective through their own approach
  • I provided specific feedback about the impact of the person’s choices and actions
  • I shared all changes I made to the person’s work before passing it on
  • I gave credit for the person’s contribution to those who benefited from it
Liane Davey/May, 2017