Are you delegating? Or dumping?

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I just finished the design of a training program for the senior leaders of a multi-national company. As my partners and I collaborated with the client’s internal HR team, we had lots of good conversations about what this group of leaders did well and where they needed improvement.

One thing that surprised me was that these senior leaders needed to get better at delegating. Now these aren’t brand new supervisors; we are talking about directors and senior directors who have been in leadership roles for years — decades in some cases. Why haven’t they mastered delegation?

As we conducted focus groups with the target population, we quickly learned that the word “delegation” had a negative connotation. Managers associated delegation with “dumping”. In the words of one participant, “Oh, I’d never delegate to someone. I give my people assignments all the time, but I don’t think it’s fair to just dump stuff on others just because I don’t want to do it.”

Hmm…when did delegation become dumping? My take is that this interpretation is the result of bad management. If I’ve only had leaders who dump stuff on my desk with no context, explanation, or support (I call this “drive-by delegating”) then I will start to have bad feelings about delegation.

Of course, dumping is not what delegation is about. Delegation is allocating decision-making authority or task responsibility to the appropriate people to maximize individuals’, and therefore the organization’s, effectiveness.

In his book, Bootstrap Leadership, leadership expert and coach Steve Arneson writes that delegation:

Increases work output and maximizes your team’s productivity;

fosters growth and development;

keeps employees motivated and engaged; and

allows the leader to focus on higher-level work.

When viewed through this lens, it becomes obvious that delegation is a critical responsibility for leaders at all levels. Leaders who don’t delegate are actually doing a disservice to their employees, themselves, and their organization.

The way you delegate makes a big difference to you, the person you are delegating to, and the success of the project. Here is some advice on how to delegate:

Decide what to delegate

Chances are high that you are so busy that you forget to take time out to assess what could be done by others. Think about delegating:

Decisions you make frequently.

Functions that are in your technical or functional specialty.

Work that will provide experience for employees.

Assignments that will add variety to routine work.

Activities that will make a position more complete.

Tasks that will increase the number of people who can perform critical assignments.

Opportunities to use and reinforce creative talents.

Assignments that will provide direct exposure to related functions in other departments.

Tasks that will bring high-potential individuals in contact with more senior management.

Arneson writes, “A general rule of thumb is that you should consider delegating anything that someone else can do and nothing that only you can do.”

The delegation conversation

When it comes time to actually do the delegating, remember to avoid dumping. Have a conversation with the employee to provide the details they need to be successful. During your conversation, be sure to:

Explain the reason for delegating to the employee.

Describe the project or responsibility clearly, including expected results.

Explain how the project fits into the larger scheme of things.

Tell the employee what authority he or she has.

Discuss additional parameters such as the time frame, necessary materials and resources, relevant policies and procedures, and others who need to be involved.

Discuss follow-up.

Establish checkpoints.

Emphasize the employee’s responsibility for the outcome.

Follow-ip

Lastly, be sure to follow through with your agreed-upon checkpoints. Be careful not to micro-manage and take back the assignment you delegated. At the same time, don’t desert the employee and leave him or her to flounder or fail. Provide support and guidance Remember: Delegating is only dumping when you don’t do it well.

Mack is a Woodland Park based consultant. Wendy@WendyMack.com.