Barriers to effective delegation (again!)

I recently completed a training initiative with a group of new leaders in one of our client companies. Of all the areas we covered, the one that presented the biggest challenge for these leaders was the area of delegation. This is not an uncommon development, as this issue is almost always in the top two or three. With that in mind, this blog from 2007 should serve as a good reminder.

The late General George Patton was credited with the following quote: “Never tell a person how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.” This idea sounds both simple and profound, yet has to be one of the most pressing challenges for those of us in a managerial role. This challenge may be even stronger for supervisors and managers who are new to their leadership roles.

Most business people would probably agree that there are several benefits to effective delegation. A working definition of effective delegation for an individual in a leadership role is the extension of oneself through another person or group. When done well, the manager improves coaching skills, helps others along their career paths, builds a sense of team accountability, and — if done very well — finds time to actually address other priorities. In addition, the individual gets the opportunity to learn and grow, feels he/she is a more critical part of the team, and gains skills that will make him/her more promotable.

All of this seems fairly obvious and straightforward. The question is, if it is so obvious and easy to understand, why don’t managers delegate effectively more often? This is another way of asking, why doesn’t common sense correlate to common practice more regularly? Having had the opportunity to work with thousands of managers, supervisors, and team leaders over the years, the answer generally falls into four different categories:

1. Manager delegates 100% of the responsibility to associate

You can delegate authority; you share responsibility. Harry Truman was the guy who said, “The buck stops here!” New supervisors often think they did their full job when they delegated the project to one of their people. The reality is that both the supervisor and associate still ultimately share the responsibility for the job. Delegation is not abdication, and a good leader is continually aware of the balance between authority and responsibility.

2. The subordinate cannot do the job — real or imagined

Many managers are so convinced of their own way and ability to do a job, that they get in the way of the growth of their team. When a job that “only they can do well” presents itself, they hesitate to give the opportunity to someone else. In doing this they are not only getting in the way of the development of their people, they are short-circuiting their own career path. Building a team is not about showing how well you can do the job. It is all about coaching others to do an even better job.

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3. The subordinate will do too good a job

I used to work with a fellow manager who was as strong a workaholic as anyone I’ve known.  This same individual was famous for never taking vacations because she was “the only one who could do the job.” At long last, she was forced to take a vacation and her assistant took over for two weeks. Upon her return, she heard about how smoothly the operation had run in her absence. She was even told that a monthly project had gone better than ever.

After hearing all this positive feedback, she was threatened and immediately started to find negative things to say about her assistant. The story ended when the manager was let go and the assistant took over. The point is that good leaders tend to rise on the shoulders (not the heads) of their people.

4. People do not know how to delegate effectively

At entry level, 90% of job performance is a direct result of our own efforts. As people advance through the leadership track, 90% of their results will probably come from what they are able to get done through others. I have a friend who heads up a very technical part of a large company. His education and much of his early career were based on engineering expertise. Today, he has over 200 engineers working for him. When I asked him how much of his day-to-day work required an engineering degree, he almost laughed. The point is job knowledge does not equal managerial ability or people skills. It is a distinctly different skill set and needs to be acquired. For more on this, read Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

If you are in, or about to be in a leadership role, a keen sense of these barriers is a start. Better than that, get beyond the barriers and build people to make them successful. That’s what good leadership is all about!

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