The Delicate Balance of Delegating

DelegationA truism in the management/leadership world is that “People quit managers, not companies.” And the number one reason that people quit managers is because of poor delegation. Either the manager is overly controlling–not allowing employees to make decisions about their work–or overly permissive, and chaos reigns in the workplace because there is no real supervision or leadership.

Getting delegation right is difficult and takes some practice, but it is certainly possible. Delegating is difficult because people need to be given different amounts of responsibility depending on the circumstances. A person who is new to the job should be given less responsibility and receive more supervision than someone who has extensive experience in the job. Even an experienced worker will need more supervision when learning something new.

Effective delegation requires more than just understanding the employee’s ability to succeed in the task. The manager must also understand her/his tolerance level for mistakes. For example, when a task is critical to the team’s effectiveness or safety, the tolerance level should be minimal. But when a mistake would result in few repercussions, it is probably worthwhile to allow the employee to learn from her/his mistakes.

Too much delegation will often result in high levels of mistakes as well low confidence in you as manager. Conversely, too little delegation can result in an over-dependence on you and a lack of initiative by your team members. You may be considered a micro-manager, and people might end up quitting because of you.

What’s a poor, longsuffering manager to do?

If delegation is a particularly difficult skill for you, consider the following suggestions.

  • When assigning responsibilities, consider whether you need to have the work done without errors or whether you can tolerate a few errors as the person learns. If the work needs to be done error-free, you might want to delegate the assignment to your most experienced person, and only serve as back-up to that person. If you can tolerate a few errors, consider assigning it to a less-experienced person and possibly asking the more experienced person to be back-up. That will allow both people to experience a stretch assignment.
  • Ask your team members what kind of assignments they would like to receive in the coming year, and then do your best to honor their requests.
  • Make sure you discuss the expected result when you delegate a task. Both you and the person responsible for the task should understand what is acceptable performance, when the assignment is due, and how often the work should be monitored by you. That will keep any unpleasant surprises to a minimum.
  • Consider your team members as collaborators rather than subordinates. Collaboration involves people acting as a team and using their strengths, whereas thinking of team members as subordinates implies that you have all the answers and you may or may not share those answers with them. People who are treated as collaborators are much more likely to rise to expectations than those who are considered to be subordinates.
  • Consult with colleagues or with your own manager to receive guidance about the best way to delegate. These people will probably be happy to collaborate with you to help you become more comfortable with delegation.

Managers who delegate well can probably trust their team members to effectively plan and handle their assignments and to ask for help when they need it. That level of trust isn’t automatic; rather, it needs to be earned. Don’t automatically assume that team members can handle this level of trust, but do provide it when it has been earned. Team members are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if they see you are trying to master this skill.

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