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Are You A Not-So-Great Delegator?

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You're hardly alone. But keeping too much on your plate can drag the organization down. Some tips for letting go.

One of the prime contributors to the busyness plaguing leaders is a reluctance or inability to delegate appropriately. In the 360 feedback we gather as part of our work with executives, we’ve sometimes seen this reluctance stem from an overstrength in concern for direct reports: Leaders are reluctant to overburden others who are also busy with extra work the leaders could perform themselves.

We’ve also seen this arise from an overstrength in integrity: Leaders have specific standards for how the work should be performed and don’t trust others to perform as they would. Both concern and integrity are certainly positive qualities, but too much of a good thing can create negative unintended outcomes.

Trust is a key element in each of these situations. We define trust as a willingness to put something you value at risk based on another’s actions. In the integrity case, the trust factor arises because the leader isn’t willing to risk that someone else won’t perform as they would. In the concern case, the leader’s reluctance to delegate may be interpreted by others as stemming from a lack of trust.

Fortunately, there are four delegation best practices that also build stronger bonds of trust:

1. Set the Context. Rather than just assigning a task to someone, provide the bigger picture of how the work being delegated contributes to an important outcome. Providing directional guidance to the person being delegated to allows them to adapt in real time and take independent action to reach the outcome. In the absence of this bigger picture, the delegatee must return to the leader for a new direction if the task doesn’t work. Trust improves with explicit discussion of context because having an explicit shared commitment to a purpose or outcome reduces the risk a leader might feel in delegating.

For example, a leader we worked with outlined the problem to be addressed through an analysis. They were surprised and delighted when the analyst produced a stronger and more nuanced analysis because the analyst understood how exactly the analysis would be used.

To set the context, discuss both the future state and the current state with the person being delegated to when delegating work.

2. Establish Constraints. Constraints provide useful guidance on expectations and help ensure the work product will fit the need. Appropriate constraints reduce the chances that the delegatee will waste effort pursuing unacceptable options. Constraints also reduce the risk of delegating by increasing the predictability and consistency of outcomes. But that doesn’t mean the outcomes can’t surprise and delight.

Consider this example: When a business sought to relocate its San Francisco headquarters, the president delegated finding a new space to a team from that office. She outlined constraints around the desired area of the city, the budget, and lease costs. The team’s efforts narrowed to two options, which they gave to the president. While emphasizing that the decision rested with the team, the president said she preferred one of the two. The team subsequently selected the other and executed the relocation. The president later noted that the new space far surpassed her expectations thanks to the team’s vision for the space and commitment.

To establish constraints, be explicit about what’s essential, what’s nice to have, and what’s off-limits.

3. Delegate and Coach. Delegation is an opportunity to coach others. By providing regular guidance, collaboratively solving problems, and building skills, you create operating leverage. Delegation is a powerful development strategy for building the organization’s bench strength. When delegatees are highly capable, leaders perceive much lower risk in delegating. It’s common for leaders to have a hard time delegating, and one popular statistic states that while 30% of managers believe they can delegate effectively, only 33% are considered good delegators by their teams.

Coaching is an important aspect of delegating successfully, as it helps people work through the pressure to perform and increases self-confidence. To coach when you delegate, establish a disciplined cadence of meetings with the person being delegated to and focus on coaching them through problem-solving and on identifying and consolidating learning from their experience. Also, ensure ongoing open-door access.

As an example, consider a high potential assigned to assist in integrating a European acquisition who faced significant challenges when her U.S.-based manager asked her to fill an unexpected vacancy as a leader in the acquired company. The two set up recurring coaching check-ins to ensure she had consistent thought partnership and guidance. The experience accelerated her development dramatically, and she progressed rapidly.

4. Communicate Regularly. Communication is not the same as coaching, which has an explicit developmental focus. Most companies need to put more emphasis on this, as 60% of businesses lack long-term internal communications strategies. Communication should be a two-way dialogue to ensure the leader knows the status of the work and can provide timely input. One of the hallmarks of effective leadership communication is that it is predictable — people can count on hearing and being heard regularly. Plus, people interpret a lack of communication negatively. No news is bad news, after all.

Many leaders adapt their daily stand-ups from agile development as a communications practice. This provides a recurring opportunity for discussing progress and reinforcing alignment in activities. To communicate effectively when you delegate, schedule regular check-ins or be explicit about the process and cadence for updates.

These four practices can both liberate leaders from relentless busyness and build stronger bonds of trust with those they lead.


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