Giving it all away? Seven dimensions of delegation

August 30, 2018

Getting someone else to carry out tasks on your behalf is a key management skill and one that a lot of people struggle with. They micro-manage and interfere too much or they abdicate responsibility and leave people floundering. There’s no formula for good delegation – it depends on the task and the individual you’re delegating it to. But you may find it useful to think more carefully about what exactly you’re giving someone responsibility for in any given situation. I’ve come up with seven dimensions of delegation to help you work that out.

1. Process

Who decides how the task will be done – you or the person you’ve delegated to?  We all know the stereotype of the control freak manager who gives step-by-step instructions to ensure the task is completed precisely the way they would do it themselves. If one of the aims of delegation is to develop people, then this is clearly unhelpful.

But the opposite extreme can also be problematic. You might be the kind of person who loves to work out what you’re doing from a blank sheet, even (or, perhaps, especially) if it’s something you’ve never done before. If so, you may underestimate the extent to which others, including very capable, intelligent specialists in their field, need some sort of structure to guide their thinking. I’ve seen situations where a manager gives no guidance for fear of seeming patronising, only to find weeks later that the person has literally no idea where to start.

Working out how much explicit guidance the person needs is the first step in delegating effectively. If you’re not sure, asking how they plan to go about it is a good starting point.

2. Standards

Whose standards are they working to? Who decides what’s good enough? Obviously, I’m not suggesting you accept errors in calculations, red penfaulty logic or grammatical howlers – though it’s better if you don’t point them out by going through someone’s work with a red pen, as I’ve seen some managers do. But does it matter if a report is not worded they way you’d phrase it or a PowerPoint presentation isn’t as jazzy as you’d like? Maybe it does. Perhaps your organisation has specific standards for work – branded colours, particular fonts and so on. If so, be really clear about your expectations from the start. If not, can you let them do it their way? This one is particularly difficult for perfectionists.

3. Decision making authority

The more complex the task, the more decisions are likely to be involved. How much of that decision-making authority are you delegating? Supposing you ask a team member to organise a team away day. Do they choose the venue or recommend a shortlist? Who sets the agenda for the day, works out the timetable, picks the menu? Being clear about decision-making latitude at the outset avoids a lot of misunderstanding and resentment later.

4. Resource requirements

All tasks require some resources, even if it’s only the person’s time. If you’re in professional services or consultancy and monitor billable hours, you’ll know that’s a very important resource. MoneyOther resources may also be necessary, such as other people’s time, use of meeting rooms or equipment or actual money. Who decides what’s required for a task, you or the person you’re delegating to? Do they have an overall limit of money or time that they have to manage within or do you approve the resources required for each stage of the task? There is little more frustrating than being given a task without the resources to complete it, so make sure there is clarity around this. A loyal reader has pointed out that I should add timescale in here – regardless of how many hours or days the task is going to take, who decides when it’s got to be finished by?

5. Progress monitoring

Of course, you will need to monitor progress but how often? To what extent can this person keep themselves on track without you checking up on them? What should determine the degree of monitoring vs self-management is the person’s ability and motivation to manage themselves, combined with the duration and nature of the task. Daily checking is likely to be OTT for a task that will take a month, for example, but maybe not if it’s high risk and mission critical.

In reality, what often dictates the degree of monitoring is the personality of the manager. At one extreme you have control freak micro-managers who spend so long checking up that they might as well do the task themselves (and frequently don’t delegate at all for precisely that reason). At the other extreme, I’ve known managers who don’t so much delegate as throw ideas out and hope someone picks them up. Often big picture thinkers, they forget the detail, follow up inconsistently and are surprised when, months later, nothing’s happened. In a working life of conflicting priorities, people are unlikely to focus on the thing no one is chasing.

6. Accountability

When you delegate work, the ultimate accountability still rests with you. But that doesn’t mean the person you delegated to is totally off the hook if things go wrong (or indeed that all of the credit is yours if everything is a success). I’ve seen managers approach this from both extremes. At one end, you have those who dodge accountability, pushing it all downwards. So, for example, imagine an MD quizzing an area manager about poor results. The director (the area manager’s boss) abdicates responsibility and metaphorically, and perhaps literally, sits with the MD, saying “yeah, why didn’t you achieve more”, rather than sitting with the area manager and accepting a share of responsibility for the poor results.

At the other extreme, I’ve known managers take a philosophical stance that says “the buck stops with me; if it went wrong, it must be my fault”. Whilst it’s admirable that they look at what they personally could have done differently, there’s a risk of infantalising people. How will people learn from their mistakes if their manager, like a kindly parent, makes it all better? I’m not suggesting draconian punishment for honest mistakes, but surely adults should be held accountable for their actions? For the manager, this seemingly noble act can be a way of avoiding difficult conversations about performance. The same is true of managers who quietly correct people’s work and don’t tell them.

7. Pressure

One of the reasons you delegate as a manager is because you have more work than you could possibly do on your own. This creates pressure. How much of that pressure do you push down? The obvious wrong answer is all of it. The manager who makes everyone stay late and then swans off at 5pm is not going to be popular. I expect these people exist, but what I encounter much more frequently is the opposite – the manager who is reluctant to pass on any of the pressure.

I need to tread carefully here because I don’t want to sound like I’m encouraging exploitation.shock stress.jpg I think work/life balance is important and no one should be constantly working long hours. But there are times when the pressure is on – ask a tax accountant in January or an IT person before a go-live date. What I often see is managers protecting their staff from this pressure. They either don’t give people extra work or they take it back and finish it themselves, often late at night, if people can’t meet the deadline. If, at a time of peak demand, you’re the only one working extra hard, something’s wrong with the distribution of work. You could even see it as unfair to your staff – if they’re ambitious people, wanting to progress, shouldn’t they get used to working under a degree of pressure? If you constantly shield them from it, they’ll get a hell of a shock when they go for promotion.

You could be getting delegation just right in some of these dimensions and missing the mark on others – giving the right amount of direction but being over-zealous with monitoring or being clear about decision-making latitude but not about resource requirements, for example.

If you’d like to explore the way you delegate, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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  1. David Ringsell September 28, 2018 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Great article … some excellent points. Learning to delegate effectively is important. I know I can get someone to do something, but still worry about the task myself. In effect doing the the same job twice (!!)

    • carolinegourlay September 28, 2018 at 11:22 am - Reply

      Thanks David. It’s definitely a skill to delegate and leave someone to it.

  2. Mareike Broix October 31, 2018 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Once again a brilliant article Caroline, very helpful!

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