The Art of Delegation

Leaders love to delegate—and in doing so, they want to empower others. Well, some leaders do. Others struggle with it, wanting to oversee everything to ensure success. Leadership involves a natural tension between freedom and control that comes into clear focus with delegation. On one hand, you want to empower others to spread their wings so they can help to better realize the vision, and you also want to free yourself up to fly at your own elevation. On the other hand, you want to make sure that things are done right, and you want to fly low enough to ensure that.

Many leaders, no matter how they handle this tension, end up frustrated or disappointed with delegation. People didn’t do what was expected. People overstepped their bounds. People couldn’t handle the task you thought they could. There are many versions of this dissatisfaction, but there are only two reasons why delegation usually fails:

  1. The exact parameters of the delegation weren’t clarified and approved
  2. Too much responsibility is delegated too soon

Reason #1

When you delegate, you give someone authority. Too often, it’s unspoken what that authority is. It may (or may not) be clear in the leader’s mind. It may (or may not) be clear to the person to whom you’re delegating. For delegation to be successful, it’s crucial to be explicit about exactly what tasks, expectations, and decision-making authority is being delegated.

I remember a situation where a leader asked one of her team members to reduce costs in their department by 15 percent in the next six months. There was no further discussion. The team member decided the best way to reduce costs was to lay off three staff positions. When the leader found out they were flabbergasted. “How could you do that?! I told you to reduce costs, not staff.” The parameters of delegation hadn’t been discussed and approved.

Useful questions to get answered are:

  • You want me to do [insert action], right?
  • Who can decide what?
  • What is off the table for consideration?
  • You mean I can [insert action]?

Think of delegating as setting expectations. If these questions get answered at the time of the delegation, dissatisfaction goes way down.

Reason #2

The choice to delegate to someone is a choice to trust that person to handle the responsibility they are given. It’s best not to make this choice blindly or emotionally. Many leaders feel uncomfortable testing to see whether someone can handle the job or not, or they think people will be insulted if they need to test them in order to develop the trust to delegate fully. Delegation doesn’t need to be given all at once. You can give partial responsibility until you learn that the person can succeed, and then give it fully later. It’s best to face your own discomfort and get the confidence you need, so you’ll avoid failure and dissatisfaction (and discomfort) later, especially if the stakes are high.

A leader I know had a new staff member who was quite talented, but new to how this leader did things. The staff member volunteered to handle correspondence with the CEO. This leader took the risk to test and delegate, partially at first, so as to ensure that her new employee would be successful. She said, “Why don’t you run your first couple emails by me, just so you’ll learn to keep the knucklehead stuff off the CEO’s desk.” The new staff member was initially disappointed, but gained confidence quickly. Soon, he was able to to send major correspondence without creating any distractions for the CEO.

So, when delegating, clarity is your friend, but the temptation to give more authority than you’re comfortable with is like a wild pitch—just let it sail by.

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