The Under-Utilized Art of Delegation

Notebook with delegating sign. Business concept.Delegation is one of the hardest skills to learn – most of us just aren’t very good at it. A 2007 study showed that nearly half of the companies it surveyed were concerned about their employees abilities to delegate effectively, something they deemed essential for their workforce.

While sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint delegation shortcomings in ourselves, most all of us have experienced working with a supervisor who did not know how to delegate well. For instance I remember doing a graphic design project for an employer years ago, during which my boss hovered over my shoulder constantly, examining every line, image, and font as I worked through a promotional brochure. Though she had assigned this task to me because of my experience and skillset, and as a manager she had more important things to do, she could not help herself from being involved at every step. This was a pattern we regularly fell into.

This is not true delegation, rather it is an extreme form of micromanagement which basically results in two people working on the same task — a significant waste of resources. Moreover, it’s a huge demotivator, as it implies a lack of trust in the subordinate. After a while I found the quality of my work slipping because I knew that everything I produced would be nit-picked and altered into something that was not my own work regardless of how much energy I put in. I felt more like her personal two-hundred pound wireless mouse than a paid professional with a brain of my own.

Supervisors bad at delegating often find themselves overloaded with work. Meanwhile their subordinates are often lacking for work, or hamstrung by micromanagement and thus under-producing. Delegation is the cornerstone of efficiency in organizations, so not doing using it properly will have detrimental effects.

Why we don’t delegate

There are a few reasons we don’t delegate – chief among them are feelings that we can do the work better, or that it’s just easier to do things ourselves. There are also trust issues involved. Sometimes we don’t have faith in someone else’s ability to get something done on time or at the quality level we want. Of course, when examined closer, these turn out to be management shortcomings, not validation for avoiding delegating. If you don’t trust an employee to get the work done on time or at the quality level you’re seeking, then it’s time to focus on their development.

Also, sometimes we feel less valuable if we are simply managing people and timelines instead of elbow-deep in the actual work that’s getting done. It takes self-confidence to realize that we don’t have to have our fingers in everything to be relevant, and it takes wisdom to know the value of being the shepherd who guides people and projects toward the company’s bigger-picture goals.

Managing expectations

Expectations are difficult to overcome with regard to delegating. One of the most important things to understand is that just because someone does something differently, it doesn’t make it inherently wrong or worse than what you would have done. We have an inborn bias for our own work, and it’s easy to get caught up in the “but I’ve always done it this way” thought pattern. However, it’s necessary to relinquish this form of control because it will lead to huge productivity gains and renewed capacity to work on bigger picture items. Likewise, releasing this control gives ownership to your workers and makes them feel better about themselves and the importance of their contribution.

As for mishaps and mistakes, they are something that come with the territory as delegation is putting more responsibility on other people. However, think of these as normal and healthy growing pains which are fantastic teaching tools for your employees. They will never grow into the worker you desire unless you allow them some leeway.

Better Delegating

As with everything, communication is key when it comes to delegating, as is setting expectations. Moreover, there are ways to build trust over time, even with newer or less reliable workers.

Try the approaches listed below. Each provides a different level of responsibility to the person you’re delegating to, and the approach you take might depend on your comfort level and the importance of the project you’re delegating.

  • Ask for multiple recommendations, plus their pros and cons, and require the person to check in prior to moving forward.
  • Ask for one recommendation or decision, and then require a review period before moving ahead.
  • Ask for a decision on a course of action, providing you an overview of the direction, no approval needed unless you say otherwise.
  • Ask for a decision and action, but let to let you know what they did afterward.
  • Decide and take action, no need to tell me what you what they did.
  • Relinquish responsibility to your worker.

As with anything new, it’s important to check on the progress of projects from time to time, but be careful not to step over someone’s newfound autonomy by micromanaging.

Benefits of Learning to Delegate

Delegation allows you the time to truly focus on what matters while keeping your company’s productivity at its highest. Tim Ferriss, author of the bestselling 4 Hour Work Week, had a great story about the power of delegating. When he ran a nutritional supplement business he had his reps check in with him whenever there was an issue with regard to money, such as refunds or discount requests, etc. He found that this was eating up the bulk of his time and not allowing him to focus on what truly mattered, which was growing the business. So he decided to allow reps to make their own decisions in situations under a certain dollar amount.

Immediately, he found that he gained back huge periods of time for other tasks, and upon reviewing his rep’s actions, he found that in most cases they made the same decisions he would have. After realizing this, he increased his reps responsibility by allowing them to make decisions in scenarios that involved hundreds of dollars. Upon review, he found that reps were still making decisions very similar to himself, and he finally had the freedom to concentrate fully on big picture items.

Again, delegation is something that needs to be worked at, but the benefits are manifold. Not only will you find yourself unburdened by non-essential tasks, you will also find your employees more engaged as they grow into their new found responsibility and sense of autonomy.

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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