The Art of Delegating

December 10, 2010

There is one thing that becomes painfully obvious to anyone once they spend a short amount of time in a management role: you cannot do everything yourself. Your universe expands and you quickly realize that you can’t do all of the work. You need to delegate.

And whatever you do, don’t micromanage! If you do, you own the work, not the employee. And you will own it for all time. Anything related to that work will come back to you.

Sure, maybe you have some prior experience and even expertise in what you are asking someone else to do, but keep in mind that you are asking someone else to do it! They need to take ownership of it, not you..

Most new managers are uncomfortable with this at first. The act of delegating feels unnatural. If you are feeling this way, try it! You’ll be surprised at how positively people respond – unless they are already overburdened. In that case you need to have a conversation about priorities or shifting work elsewhere.

There is another aspect to delegating that is important, particularly with knowledge workers: Focus your primary attention on what you need accomplished and when, not on the "how."

Can you talk with an employee about how to go about the work? Certainly, but if you want them to own the task, make it a coaching dialog. Ask, “How do you see yourself approaching this?” Talk about options and the tradeoffs with various approaches, but don’t dictate. It's a delicate balance: People have more buy-in and motivation when something is their idea, and a short conversation can help shape their approach and avoid nasty errors or surprises later.

When delegating, be clear about what you want to be accomplished, and when. Paint a clear picture about what success will look like, and make sure that ambiguities are out of the equation.

For example, asking someone to, “Investigate the performance problems with the XYZ application” is not the same as “Identify and document the performance bottlenecks of the XYZ application that are involved with making credit card payments. Customers are screaming that credit card payments are taking too long or timing out, and we’re going to lose customers to our competition as a result. I’m not asking you to fix the problem, but I need a list of the root causes of the slow performance and timeouts so that we can assign the appropriate people to fix the issues. Our Customer Support department has specific, detailed examples that you can use as a starting point. Let’s talk about how you see yourself approaching this problem, what support that you need from me, and determine a date when this will be completed.”

In the latter case, you’ve explained precisely what needs to be done and why it’s important. From a motivational standpoint, it’s much better to give people a purpose instead of a task.

Note that the last sentence in my example invites a dialog. It involves talking about how the work will be performed, if the necessary resources (equipment, assistance from others) are in place, and collaboratively determining when the work can be realistically completed. An important accountability step in the process is securing a commitment for accomplishing the work. The next step for you as a manager is to let go.

Autonomy can be a scary thing for many managers, but in reality it isn’t a hands-off affair. People need to feel that they are trusted and that they have some space to work, but that doesn’t mean you delegate and evaporate. While micromanaging is stifling, checking in on how someone is managing their work can be motivating because you are demonstrating an active interest and communicating – through your attention – that their work is important.

Yes, this is also a progress check! But without reviewing progress, accountability becomes a problem. As a part of the initial dialog, you can also agree on when and how the follow-ups will take place.

If you fail to follow up and instead wait until the deadline for something to be complete, you might hear perfectly reasonable excuses about why something did not get accomplished. And perhaps some of these excuses will be legitimate, with the only crime being that if you had known about the problems, you might have been able to help to overcome them. As a manager, sometimes you need to help people deal with other distractions, perhaps from other managers or even your own boss.