Delegation has a sweet spot and it lies somewhere between the tightfisted grip of the control freak who can’t give anything away, and the lackadaisical absentee manager who won’t accept responsibility. Somewhere in there is a place where a manager can offer a chance for expanded responsibilities, with a safety net. It’s the place where an employee can broaden their experience and know that failure is an option. As a manager, that’s what I aim for.
Delegation happens when a manager offers an employee an opportunity take on a task or project. Delgation is an offer, not a demand. Managers can delegate a lot of their work (in theory, at least), but they can’t give away their ultimate responsibility for that work. Managers can bestow certain authorities, but they can’t pass off their responsibilities. Delgation isn’t the same as assignment, and that throws some folks for a loop. Since assignments are part of the job description, they can’t really be turned down (though they can certainly be botched on purpose). Delegated tasks are tasks that are part of the manager’s job description, though, so employees ought to know that they really can consider turning down delegated tasks.
Let’s look for a moment at the idea of turning down a delegated task. If you’ve got a good manager and you enjoy your work, you probably won’t turn down an offer of delegation because you know it means more fun work and it only raises your profile. In my opinion, there aren’t many times when it’s a good idea to turn down a delegated task. The more likely scenario is that you can renegotiate the task. You may see that you’re being asked to do only a portion of what needs to be done. This can often be a path to failure if your portion is dependant upon another person’s outcome and there aren’t clearly defined feedback channels (there usually aren’t). Consider asking for the whole task or process rather than a slice of it. Conversely, you may see that you’re being asked to do something for which there are no obvious supporting resources. Probably worth negotiating those in, or at least brainstorming with your boss about how to bootstrap the project.
If you’ve got the control freak manager, then you probably won’t get anything delegated to you, but in the unlikely event that you do, and you accept it, you’ll be on a leash the whole time. The best strategy here is to set up a firm front-end agreement as to the outcome, resources and timeline. Also set up regular review meetings, no more frequently than weekly, though the exact timing will depend upon the nature of the project and just how controlling your manager is. The idea here is to provide the control freak manager with sufficient external controls that they feel comfortable letting go. If they keep bugging you, just remind them of the agreeement and let them know that the two of you can discuss things at the next regularly scheduled review.
If you’ve got a manager who tends toward the absentee side of the spectrum, the strategy is essentially the same, though the emphasis is heavier on the regular review meetings. Again, the timing of the meetings ought to be tied to your specific project and your manager’s disposition. Unlike the micromanager scenario, reviews with the absentee manager are more for your own peace of mind than for theirs. You’ll want to give them a brief update on progress and roadblocks. You’ll probably be doing a lot of “managing up” so you’ll want to be sure your follow-up is flawless. The tried and true, “death by next action” technique is well served here. If you’ve got a next step that’s hung up on your manager’s to-do list, just keep sending friendly reminders via email, with increasing frequency and urgency, until the task gets done, or the project blows up.
If you’re the manager and you’re overloaded, delegation ought to be one of your first considerations. Take a look around at staff and determine whose skills and interests most closely match the project or task at hand. Resist the temptation to pass it to the person who has been the most competent over time, or with whom you communicate most easily. Look hard and objectively at what people are good at. A huge part of a manager’s job is helping people develop new skills and fine tune old ones–don’t take the easy way out.
If you sense resistance to the offer of delegation, explore it. On the surface, the employee is probably pointing at the clock and saying they don’t have time for this. A little deeper examination might reveal a little bit of fear. Maybe it’s a simple fear of failure, maybe they don’t want you to know they don’t really understand the task, or maybe they don’t believe there are sufficient resources available. The “time excuse” usually doesn’t hold water, but be open to the possibility that it might. If this is really the right person for the job, look at ways you can clear their plate for a while, or perhaps delay the delagated task until they’re able to clear the decks. Don’t be vague in this conversation, though. Set clear benchmarks and goals for clearing the decks, just as you would (right?) for the delegated task itself.
The manager’s risks of delegation
I don’t pretend to know all the risks associated with delegation, but there are a few obvious ones. Following are descriptions of the risks and their associated antidotes.
Coming from a blog with a name like Slacker Manager, the first and most obvious risk is that people will think you’re just trying to dodge your responsibilities by delegating everything away. Antidote: be clear about the fact that you’re sharing responsibility. You (the manager) will maintain as much communication as needed throughout the life of the delegated task. All success will be theirs. You’d like to say all failure will be yours, but that isn’t always true. If they make some really boneheaded decisions, you’ll both suffer. Otherwise, you can take the heat for their learning curve.
Another risk is that you’ll end up with yet another project to manage. Antidote: don’t fall into this trap. Hold on loosely. Keep an eye on things, have regular check-ins, but don’t hover like a den mother. You don’t need another project to manage, and they don’t need a micromanager breathing down their neck.
A related risk is that you’ll lose control of [insert your fear here]. Antidote: Get over it. You’ve got a job title that ensures your responsibilities. There should never be a question of who owns what. If there ever is a question, then it’s time for a hard conversation with either the person who reports to you, or between you and your boss. If it’s between you and your boss, bring a copy of your job description to the conversation. Go in with the best intentions, but get your resume polished up.
Failure is a reasonable risk. Antidote: Failure happens and by now all enlightened managers ought to understand that evidence of failure indicates a willingness to innovate. Doesn’t make it any easier to accept failures, but at least you know you and your folks are planting seeds for future success. Don’t fear failure; face it, measure it, fix the problems that caused it and keep on keeping on.
General delegation tips for managers
- Set context. When delegating, setting context is a great idea. Let folks know why this is important, how it’s good for them and how it’s good for others.
- Individualize. Don’t delegate willy nilly. Assess the skills of the folks available and match tasks to skills.
- Remember responsibility. Don’t forget that the responsibility for the task or project ultimately belongs to you.
- Accept the risks. ‘Nuff said.
General tips for delegatees
- Negotiate the delgation. Make sure you have sufficient information, authority and resources; negotiate when needed.
- Consider saying no. There can be legitimate times when it’s not appropriate for you to accept delegated tasks. It’s rare, though, so tread lightly here.
- Meet regularly. This is easy to let slide, so be aware. Regular meetings not only ensure you and your boss are on the same page, it also alerts you to changes on the landscape of your project. This is notice you might not get anywhere else.