07th Feb 2009

Delegating: when there aren’t enough hours in the day

By Karen McHenry

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?

  • I bring work home on most nights and weekends.
  • I always seem to have more work to do than my subordinates.
  • I don’t have time to do much planning.
  • I wish I had more time for family, recreation, and vacations.

If even one of these statements resonated with you, then it may be time for you to considering delegating tasks to others in your organization.

What is delegation anyway? Delegation is more than just assigning work to another person. It means making staff members accountable for results. It also means giving a subordinate the latitude to make decisions about how to go about reaching those results. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes two different types of delegation:

  • “Gopher Delegation” is telling employees what to do, how to do it, when it needs to be done, and then micromanaging to make sure that they are doing what you asked.
  • “Stewardship Delegation” focuses on results, rather than on methods. It allows the other person to choose how to accomplish the assignment and holds that person accountable for achieving the results.

Stewardship delegation is, of course, the preferred form of delegation. It requires trust and often brings out the best in people. However, it also takes time and patience. As Joe Raia, Senior Associate at Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects, notes, “A firm’s success is dependent upon the ability of senior level executives and managers to delegate work to employees in a manner that not only challenges the employee, but puts them in the best position to excel. Ultimately, an executive or manager is measured by the accomplishments and recognition garnered by those who have been delegated work.”

Delegating successfully

If you think you may be ready to give delegation a try, there are ways to determine what tasks you can delegate and tips for making delegation a success.

A good first step in determining what tasks to delegate is to identify everything that you are responsible for both at work and home. Of those responsibilities, determine what you are most passionate about and what you are best at doing. For all the things that remain, identify what you can say no to and what you can delegate. It is important to keep in mind that even the tasks that you enjoy doing and are good at doing may be activities that you can delegate to others.

Once you have decided what tasks you are going to delegate, it makes sense to explore what it takes to be a successful delegator.

Prepare in advance. With delegation, the more you prepare, the better your results will be. You should take time to think through the task that needs to be done and what you want the outcome to be. It can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: What needs to be done in a particular way? Where would a person have some creative freedom? What specific outcomes am I looking for?

Next you must decide who on the team might be a promising candidate to take on the work. You might select a person because they are the best qualified and can deliver the best results. Or you might, instead, pick a subordinate who will most benefit from the learning experience associated with the task. Ask yourself how likely it is that the person you have selected will succeed at the project.

Raia observes, “There are two types of workers, Self-Motivated and Motivated by Others. When delegating a task, it is the Self-Motivated worker that succeeds because they take ownership of the task. The challenges that a specific task represents in terms of the work effort and schedule becomes personal to the Self-Motivated worker, as it represents a means to measure their own level of success. For the person delegating work, this requires less oversight and limits the potential for micro-managing.”

Provide enough information through a dialogue. Schedule a meeting with your team member and discuss the task to be. Provide the “big picture” so the employee can see how the work fits into the group’s overall objectives. Ask the person to repeat back what they believe the project entails. This will ensure that you are in agreement about the task and the desired outcomes.

Merle Adelman, President of Adelman Associates, a marketing consulting practice, comments, “The key to delegation is to be clear with direction and to follow up on a regular basis, without micromanaging. Describe your needs and deliverables as clearly as possible, and use examples when they are available. Ensure that your people feel that they have two-way communication and that they feel comfortable clarifying anything that they may have questions on.”

Delegate the entire job and give authority. When you delegate a task, be sure that others know that you’ve given responsibility to that individual. It is also important to articulate what level of authority the team member is being given. “Recommend” authority means that you are asking the person for a recommendation on a course of action, but you make the final decision. “Inform and initiate” authority means that the employee will inform you before they take action. “Act” authority means that you are giving the team member full authority to act on their own.

Establish check-in dates. At the kickoff of the project, schedule a series of checkpoint meetings. It makes sense at the start of the work to meet frequently, then taper off as the person gains proficiency with the tasks.

Set deadlines. It is a bad idea to leave projects open-ended, without a clear deadline. With that said, it is also important to ensure that deadlines are realistic and achievable, especially when delegating a stretch goal to an employee. Consider where the project fits with the person’s other existing job responsibilities, and what priority this task has relative to the other tasks already on their plate. One key to successful delegation is to delegate according to the flexibility of your deadline.

Provide support, when needed. As employees progress with a task that you have delegated, offer positive and corrective feedback. Don’t focus on what is wrong, but instead point out ways that the work could be done better. It can be helpful to point out roadblocks that may be encountered as part of completing the project. Also, if something is not going well, provide support from behind the scenes. For example, you might discreetly contact someone who is not cooperating with the employee.

When delegation is done successfully, it can be a win-win situation for managers and employees. Employees develop professionally, as they take initiative with opportunities and are willing to be held accountable. Managers, on the other hand, extend their ability to accomplish more things more quickly, while maintaining work-life balance.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology, and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.


Copyright © 2009 Karen McHenry

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