Struggle to delegate? Here’s how to do it effectively

“How easy it is to default to doing things ourselves in the knowledge that they will at least get done” – STEVE J MARTIN, NOAH J GOLDSTEIN & ROBERT B CIALDINI

If you’ve decided to click on the link to this post then I’m guessing you’re a very busy person. You might be in a management role, working increasingly longer hours and maybe feeling like you’re not achieving much. You struggle to fit everything in that you need to do and sometimes you find yourself playing catch-up over a weekend, or into the midnight hour.

Sound familiar?

Over-worked and stressed managers are the people I typically work with and help. Most often when we investigate the root causes of the pressure, we find one of the main things is an inability or unpreparedness to delegate.

This might be for a number of reasons. You might have delegated work in the past only for it to go horribly wrong, with you having to pick up the pieces – adding to your existing burden! Or you might think it’s simply easier and faster for you to do the piece of work. Or you might not trust your staff to do a good enough job.

By not delegating, not only do we disenfranchise our staff – taking away an opportunity for them to learn and gain valuable experience – we also disenfranchise ourselves as managers. As Caroline Webb says in her book How to have a good day,

By being unwilling to delegate tasks that others could reasonably help with, we fail to make progress on the important or tricky things that only we can do”

Whether I’m coaching a manager one-on-one, or working with a group of managers in a workshop, one of the common things I find is that delegation is mentioned in homogeneous terms. People talk about not being able to delegate, thinking that delegation is an either/or approach. You either hand a piece of work over, or you don’t.

It’s actually a bit more nuanced than that. In their book, Being the boss: The three imperatives for becoming a great leader, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback talk about the different levels of delegation – suggesting there are three.

  • Level one (low delegation/high control) is best used with someone about to do work they have rarely or never done before. Essentially, you do the work while the other person observes.
  • Level two (moderate delegation/moderate control) is best used with someone who has some experience and should be ready to act on their own, with you being accessible for checking-in with.
  • Level three (high delegation/low control) is best used with someone who has actually demonstrated the competence needed for the work needing to be done. You’ll only be involved if needed.

Underpinning these three levels are clear communication and boundaries. Here are five things for you to do in order to use each of the three levels of delegation:

  1. Know what is needed: Be really clear on what needs to be achieved and then explain this to the person you are delegating to.
  2. Know your people: Match the person to the task. For example, someone might have a development need around business writing and you need a report to be written.
  3. Have a quality conversation: The emphasis here is on the ‘quality’. Simply emailing and saying ‘Please do x’ or having a 2-minute conversation in passing in the corridor isn’t enough. Set aside some time to discuss and agree what needs to be done, outline what success looks like and any issues to be aware of. Ask the person to feed back their understanding of what is needed and by when.
  4. Be clear on the ‘rules of the game’: This includes whether or not you want updating at various points, and if so, how often. One of my own rules when I managed a team was ‘no surprises’. No matter how scary the issue was, it was more important to give me an early head’s up so we have time to sort it. Creating a psychologically safe environment really helped with this.
  5. Learn from the experience: Allocate some time once the task is completed to have a discussion with the person. What do they think went well? What could they do differently next time? If they were teaching someone else to do the same thing, what advice would they give? This is also an opportunity for you to think about your own learning. What did you do well that enabled the delegation to work? What would you, perhaps, do differently?

Some benefits of effective delegation

1.You’ll be focusing on high-value work where you can have maximum impact for your business. This is about you increasing your psychological empowerment and that of your team. Psychological empowerment, a concept originally developed by Gretchen Spreitzer, is made up of four elements:

  • The meaning we get from the work we do;
  • The tangible impact of the work we do;
  • Our levels of competence to do our work; and
  • The level of autonomy we have to do our work

By delegating more effectively you’ll be helping your team members to develop competence, meaning as well as see their impact and gain autonomy.

2.You’ll start to feel a bit less stressed and overwhelmed which should have a positive knock-on effect across your team. As Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said in the May 2018 edition of People Management magazine,

“Over-stressed managers will not be focused on best managing their teams and will pass that stress down”

While it may seem easier and less stressful to do everything yourself and not to delegate, that’s actually a false economy. If you’re working longer hours and pretty much seven days a week, your effectiveness as a manager will be severely impacted. You’ll likely have less patience and tolerance which means your team is likely to develop a ‘heads down’ culture, to avoid your wrath, which is not conducive to high performance.

3.By demonstrating you trust your team, your team will start to trust you in return. This lays the foundation for trusting behaviour. Sabrina Salamon and Sandra Robinson developed the concept of ‘felt trust’ which suggests that we have a need to feel trusted by others, particularly our managers, in order for us to engage in trusting behaviour such as sharing knowledge, ideas and information.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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