Once upon a time I learned something about delegation that I liked. I read it in a book or heard it at a seminar. I don’t remember exactly where or the exact words used. But I do remember the general idea.
Keep what only you can do. Delegate everything else.
That was freeing for me because the list of things only I could do was arguably small. Figuring out what was on that list, of course, required a healthy dose of self-reflection and humility. I mean, who wants to imply that they are replaceable by pointing out that most of their duties can be delegated to others and then highlight that fact by following through? I suppose that the stuff-you-can-delegate list could change depending on what work someone does and their level within an organization. There comes a point when the line between tasks that only you can do and stuff you can delegate is well-defined and based on a critical or proprietary skill, a matter of confidentiality, or a certain level of decision making authority.
Benefits of Delegating
But outside those restrictions the sky is the limit as far as things to delegate to others. And in my opinion, and my experience since learning to delegate more, mastering the art of delegation allows two wonderful things to happen.
- It creates opportunities for the delegator. It frees you up to focus on often-neglected activities, like strategic thinking and execution, innovation, continuous improvement, and self-development.
- It creates opportunities for the delegate. As individual contributors take on new tasks and gain exposure to other leaders their confidence grows, new experiences are collected, and skills are acquired. Put another way, it grows leaders.
Of course, we know leaders who are uneasy with delegation. They don’t do it for fear of losing control of people and projects. They worry about “giving up” too much responsibility and sometimes just believe that doing the job themselves will be most efficient. As we know, these fears and beliefs are rarely justified. But what about the leader who is clearly at ease with delegation? Without hesitation, good delegators push tasks and decisions down, assign new projects to team members instead of taking it on themselves, direct issues to their “back-up,” and leave the office for long stretches of time because they believe “the team can handle it.”
The Dark Side of Delegation
But is there a diminishing return on delegation? A dark side? A point at which delegation is being just plain lazy? Or even irresponsible? Maybe. Like with many aspects of leadership we need to seek a balance. Should we be fully autocratic or democratic? Just people-oriented or task-oriented? Motivate with only fear or love? Offer only positive feedback or constructive criticism? Be fully transparent or hold our cards close to the chest? And the list goes on. As to deciding which leadership approach to use and when, the typical answer is “it depends.” And determining what level of delegation is appropriate requires both situational-awareness and diagnostic skills. When does delegation become too much? At the very least when…
- You don’t know what your people are doing and how they do it
- You can’t back them up when they are out of the office
- You can’t help them in a pinch
- The general perception is that your team does all the work
- You’ve lost responsibility for making a decision
I personally observed a leader faced with complete turnover in his department. He was blindsided with the reality that he was now responsible for handling many of the day-to-day tasks that his team had been responsible for. His problem: he didn’t know the basics. His explanation for not knowing their jobs was that he had been blessed with a well-trained, professional and strong team that knew what they were doing. He had consciously chosen not to get in their way as to avoid the perception of micro-management and to allow his team the room to further grow in their jobs. Instead, he used that time to attend to other strategic efforts.
The downside? He was left holding the baton and didn’t know which way to run. His intent was good. In the past he had been accused of micromanaging. From that experience he had learned the art of pulling back, pointing his people in the right direction and getting out of their way. To most that sounds like good leadership. But his mistake this time was swinging too far the other direction. In his own words, “I went too far. I should have known the basics and I didn’t.” Because of his choices he experienced the negative effects of over-delegation.
The advice to “delegate everything else” should be applied liberally, not literally. The character-based leader finds the happy balance somewhere between delegating and doing. Between micro-management and macro-management. As the famous businessman and leader, Andrew Carnegie, said:
No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.
That’s true. And as another common saying goes:
When you delegate authority, you don’t abdicate your responsibility.
So if you consider yourself a good delegator stop and consider how well you know what’s going on around you. Can you help your team in a pinch? Do you understand the basics? Are you still responsible for the decisions made by your team? If so, then you’re not lazy. You’re a great delegator! When have you seen delegation go bad and what’s your advice for finding the right balance? [Photo: ibmsystemsmag.com, twocanview.com, louisfoong.com]