Delegate, don’t abdicate


As a leader you might have faced this problem in the past- your group starts growing and you find yourself overwhelmed with the sheer number of things that need to be tracked.

You hear advice about effective delegating to create more leaders in your group and free up some of your time to do strategic thinking. But somehow with a dark twist of fate, you become more overwhelmed and frustrated as things you delegated start falling apart. The advice that was supposed to help you starts creating more burden.

One of the ways to handle this situation is to do what other managers do — blame teammates for their lack of competence and readiness to handle the delegated tasks.

You wouldn’t be more wrong if you did that.

I’ve hardly seen cases where teammates weren’t ready to take on more responsibility. Most of the time, the problem is rooted in the manager’s understanding of delegation.

There, I said it. There are two common types of delegation that I’ve done myself, or see other managers do.

You either delegate and then forget about it as you completely trust your teammate to do the right thing (abdication). Or you delegate yet incessantly check on the progress of the delegated task (micromanagement).

You abdicate because you don’t want to come across as a micromanager. You have heard the advice that a great manager always trusts their team 100%, and you don’t want to give an impression that you doubt your teammate’s capability.

On the other hand, you micromanage because of a lot of reasons — you genuinely don’t trust your teammates, you are a perfectionist, or perhaps the most common reason, you only delegate the task and keep the picture of the perfect outcome in your head.

Both these options are at the extreme ends of ineffective delegation and they don’t get the right outcome. But there is a right way to do it. And it’s simple.

The strategy to delegate effectively is to share the what, skip defining the how, and then at a pre-committed periodic basis, assess the progress.

Share the what

Set the right expectations of the problem at hand and the desired outcome. You are delegating a set of outcomes, not tasks.

In my experience, people generally fall short in describing the desired outcome perfectly. I would encourage you to spend as much time as possible on not only sharing the problem but the outcome as well. There should be a clear understanding between you, and your teammate on what the ideal end state looks like. If you were from a tech world, I would say this is a step where you specify “the definition of done.”

You could even ask your teammate to paraphrase the outcome so that both of you are on the same page.

Skip defining the how

You should ideally let the teammate decide how they are going to create the desired outcome. Of course, you could guide them but your primary objective should be to have them come up with solutions.

To help them come up with the strategy, you could ask them the following kind of questions –

  1. What are the possible challenges they can encounter while working on this?
  2. What resources would they need to create the desired outcome?
  3. If they are committing to create the desired outcome, what all existing projects/tasks might take a backseat?

Don’t stop after their first answer to each of the above questions. Michael Bungay in the book, The Coaching Habit, suggests asking the AWE question – And What Else — to have teammates come up with more options for solving the given problem. Research shows that the more the number of options to choose from, the less the chance of failure.

Also, asking your teammates to reflect deeply about the outcomes has multiple benefits-

  1. It raises their TERA quotient, which in turn makes them more engaged and connected with their job.
  2. The teammate gets opportunities for growth and new learnings.
  3. You prepare a future leader in your group.

Assess the progress

It’s imperative that you are on top of the progress. It’s not that you don’t trust your teammate to do their job properly but ultimately you are accountable for creating the right outcome. Also, it could be that your teammate is doing this for the first time and might require some coaching to remove the impediments.

You should set the frequency and duration of check-ins with your teammate well in advance. Ideally, both of you should block your calendar with a recurring invite so that you don’t forget to discuss the progress of the delegated initiative.

You could also discuss on how the progress would look like, and how it would be reported during those check-ins.

It’s really a simple model and if done well can help elevate your teammates, your group, and your company.

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