Delegation: The art of self-management?

September 28, 2018

Last month, I discussed the dimensions of delegation, which prompted one reader to tell me that, for him, the hardest part of delegating is managing his own responses – dealing with frustration and reining in his inner control freak, for example. I recognise from my years of coaching that this is something many people struggle with. So this month, I’m looking at what to do and, more importantly, how to manage yourself in various delegation situations. So what if…..

They just don’t get it

No matter how often you explain it, they just don’t seem to grasp what to do. Try asking them to talk you through it, so you can see where the gap in their understanding is. Or break it down into smaller chunks. Or you may just have to accept that you’ve delegated this task to the wrong person. Your task in managing yourself is to handle your frustration and be patient without being patronising. Imagine how you’d like to be treated if you were struggling with something. If you’re super smart and rarely struggle to understand things, treat the person with the sensitivity you’d want if you were learning something you can’t pick up quickly, like ballroom dancing or playing the clarinet.

They’re not getting on with it

There could be many reasons for this, so don’t make assumptions. Maybe it is a tedious task that they’re not motivated to do, but it could be that they don’t know where to start, so keep putting it off. Perhaps they’re a last minute person who pulls out all the stops just before a deadline or maybe they’re just juggling a lot of other priorities.

Find out what’s going on. Clarify the deadline and your priorities. Check whether they need any support, then leave them to it. The lack of activity may be particularly anxiety-provoking if you’re the kind of person who never leaves things to the last minute. But that’s your problem, you need to manage it. And really, you should see us deadline-driven people go when we need to! (It may soothe your nerves to give a deadline a day or so before you really need it).

They don’t do it your way

Or, as you may see it, they don’t do it properly. Be clear up front about any methods that have to be followed, for example if there’s a standard report format. But be honest with yourself about this. Does it really matter if they do it differently? Who knows, they might come up with a better way. If you struggle with this, then your job is to manage your inner control freak.  Many of my clients find it easier to let go of this degree of control if they focus on higher level issues. Once you realise that freeing up time means you can get involved in strategic decision making or winning new business, then the font size on a PowerPoint presentation may seem less important.

They get it wrong

People make mistakes. They’re only human. Maybe they missed something important or their conclusions are faulty or their sums don’t add up. The key thing here is to treat them like adults. Go through their work, highlight the good bits and show them how it could be improved. If you get frustrated easily, then your job is to keep control of yourself and resist the temptation to give them a good telling off. If you’re using a tone you would use with children, you’ve gone wrong.

Just as common as the frustrated manager, however, is the awkward one. If the thought of pointing out someone’s errors fills you with toe-curling embarrassment or gut-wrenching anxiety, there’s a risk you’ll tiptoe around it, without being clear about the problem. Or worse, quietly correct their work without telling them. If you’ve got to a position where you get to delegate, then it’s your job to have awkward conversations when necessary. You need to develop your capacity to give difficult feedback.

They’re perfectionists

People talk a lot about perfectionist managers who set unrealistic standards, but what if it’s the other way around? What if the person you delegate to spends waaaaaay too long on something, endlessly fussing over minor details. It helps to agree upfront how much of their time you expect them to spend on the task. But it’s also about setting expectations about what you want from them. Perfectionists are often anxious about being criticised for making mistakes. Part of your role is to help them see that there are penalties for overplaying their perfectionism and to show them what ‘good enough’ looks like. Obviously you then need to be careful not to send mixed messages by harshly criticising them if they make a mistake.

Everything’s fine

Wait, what?! Why have I included this? There’s nothing to manage here. Indeed, but some people can’t help doing it anyway. Energy-sapping, demotivating micro-management is a frequent complaint about bad bosses. Sure, do a little light monitoring, offer support, be encouraging. But if it’s all going swimmingly, get out of the way. Ask yourself what you should really be focusing on (probably something less operational or immediate), instead of interfering with people who are quite capable of doing the job without you.

They do it better than you

Well this is a shock. You knew they were good. You thought they were ready for whatever it was – important client meeting, writing a proposal for the board – you just didn’t expect them to be this good. You know what you need to do – congratulate them, praise the quality of their work. You probably know how you’re supposed to feel too – pleased, perhaps proud, if you had a role in their development. But what if you feel envious, threatened or insecure? That’s OK. You’re allowed to have those feelings. But you also have a responsibility to deal with them. They’re not the other person’s fault. Don’t be tempted to bring them down a peg or two to make yourself feel better.

Something catastrophic happens

If you’re unlucky, there may be a disaster because of something you delegated to someone else. If you’re lucky, no one dies. It can be worth reminding yourself of that to keep a sense of perspective.* But if they have lost a client or derailed a critical project, how do you handle it? Once you’ve put things right to whatever degree you can, I’d say you have two key tasks here: to extract whatever lessons you can, for you and the person you delegated to, and to manage your feelings. The former is harder if you can’t manage the latter.

In my book it’s OK to be angry – particularly if the person was careless, reckless or negligent – so long as it’s clean anger. “I am really angry/disappointed in you. I expected better” is clean. “You stupid, worthless idiot. What the hell were you thinking?” is not. They almost certainly feel terrible about it already and don’t need you adding to the criticism they’re heaping upon themselves. And if they’re not accepting responsibility, they’re more likely to get defensive if you go on the attack. You may have to process a lot of feelings to get through this situation. As the reader who prompted this article made clear, it goes with the territory.

When delegating, managing yourself is at least as important as managing the people you’re delegating to. If you’d like any support in thinking through how you do that, do get in touch:

*If someone has died, I’m very sorry you’re having to deal with this. You’re into a whole other level of collective responsibility and grief, which is beyond the scope of this blog. You might find this article or this one helpful.

Photo credit

Steve Snodgrass

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  1. Mark Adams September 28, 2018 at 11:16 am - Reply

    Interesting read as usual, Caroline. Thanks.

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