Delegation: It may not be what you think

Even for experienced leaders, delegation presents fresh challenges throughout their careers.  When you want something done and other person becomes responsible for doing it, a sophisticated exchange is taking place.  It’s easy not to notice the elements of potential success.

I asked  a colleague to develop some materials for a training program.  She’d studied the topic in graduate school, so I was confident she had the knowledge (and probably textbooks).  I wanted to open the minds of people attending the program.  My colleague wanted to be sure she didn’t screw it up.  What I got was less than I expected.  By a lot.  And that was my fault.  I had assumed that delegation was getting someone else to do what I would do.  That’s one of the things that delegation is not.  No merit badges for delegation

Delegation is the act of turning work over to someone else.  It’s that simple.  But there are some important things that delegation is not.

  • Delegation is not work distribution or task assignment).  If you are training or coaching someone to take over a task, you may be augmenting their job or role.  If you expect them to continue to do the work or carry out the responsibility, you may have delegated it at the outset, but you have made it their job when your intention is for them to keep the responsibility.
  • Delegation is not transferring low-level responsibilities to less experienced team members.  In one company, this was called “delegating down.”  No one wanted to be on the receiving end.  This is a case of moving work to the person for whom it is best suited.  That work shouldn’t have been on your desk in the first place.  But we all know, there’s plenty of work that others could do but which can be hard to let go of.
  • Delegation is not stepping away from the work that you delegate.  Maybe you’ve seen a rapper drop his mike and walk off stage.  That’s not you.  In fact, one of the challenges is deciding how and when to remain involved.  More on that to come.
  • Delegation is not an evaluative exercise for the person you’re delegating to.  The underlying assumption is that we, managers, believe that the person is capable.  We expect that they need to develop, round out, get opportunity to demonstrate capability.  Your job is to make the person more capable, bolster needed skills.  Little is gained when we dare the person to fail.

What makes delegation so challenging is that turning work over to another person carries layers of assumptions and expectations that are never discussed.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be introduced to delegation in greater detail.  It’s:

  1. Developing people
  2. Transmitting responsibility
  3. Transmitting choice
  4. Communicating vision  and values

Next month, my colleague Kande McDonald and I will be hosting a webinar on delegation.  We’ll look beyond the four purposes of delegation above. We’ll give you some ways to investigate what’s under the hood that’s powering your delegation efforts, and a method for tuning them up. Watch for more on that in coming days.

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