Delegation is a crucial managerial skill many get wrong. Here's how to do it right.
When I was assigned my first team as a new manager, I got excited. I now had two smart individuals to help me tack a complex project I was clueless about.
I was going to become that cool boss I never had. Instead of tedious tasks, I would give them challenging and rewarding assignments, immerse them in strategic discussions and involve them in making some of the important decisions.
With that in mind, I divided the work the next few weeks and sent my employees off to express their creativity.
My approach completely backfired.
Days went by and the research I asked them to do was not progressing, insights were not at a senior executive's level of complexity and the presentation slides were all a mess. My two motivated employees were now fairly demotivated, and I was pretty sure that they were laughing at me behind my back.
Uh-oh. It was every manager's nightmare. "I didn't sign up for THIS!!" I remember thinking and missing my simpler life as an individual contributor.
The Delegation Mistakes We Make
Now that I am older and wiser, I know that I committed several crucial delegation mistakes.
I delegated work that I didn’t understand well before mapping out the necessary steps and expected results.
I delegated tasks that were not a great fit to the experience level and expertise of my employees nor gave them coaching on how to do those well (p.s. don’t ask a recently minted Ph.D. student to create an executive summary for top leadership without clear instructions).
I tried to delegate the role I was hired to do (strategic analysis and decision making) to inexperienced employees instead of seeking advice and mentoring elsewhere.
And finally, I didn’t follow up regularly to ensure that my team was on track.
Rookie mistake, right?
In every company around the world, there are managers of different seniority levels that are making these mistakes again and again. They are sitting there and scratching their heads in frustration trying to understand why their employees continue delivering sub-optimal outcomes.
Situational Leadership to the Rescue
Effective delegation is a key managerial skill one never really bothers to teach you but you are expected to master from the get-go.
Fortunately, there are many resources one could tap into to help figure out how to do this better.
One such resource is the Situational Leadership Theory and subsequent model, developed by Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard at Cornell University. The model posits that one should adapt his or her leadership style to the nature of the task and the profile of the employee.
The model has its critics but it provides a useful way to think about the evolving nature of leadership. Here is a simplified version I created for one of my courses to help you reflect on how delegation could work in your day-to-day:
Your capacity to delegate will evolve as you build the working relationship with your employees but normally it will start from the low left quadrant.
When skill and motivation are low (common for administrative/operational tasks and junior employees), you have to be very hands-on to direct employees step-by-step until they know exactly what is expected of them and are confident about their ability to execute.
When skill level is low but motivation is high, until the employee builds up skills, the role of the leader is one of a coach who helps employees recover when they make a mistake and cheers on them when they do something well.
When skill level is high but motivation is low, the leader's role is to sell the project in order to increase motivation levels. Employees need to understand "What's in it for them?", why is it important and relevant?
Motivation is high and skill is high? Time to delegate and step aside!
Sometimes, going through this process, you may realize that you hired the wrong person and that’s ok. You would never know if it’s you or them without first setting them up for success.
Avoid falling into the same trap with your next hire.
Ready to delegate? Let’s go!