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Delegation isn’t just about moving tasks off your to-do list

Published on 20 Sep 2017

By Liana Sangster
Consultant, Human Synergistics Australia and New Zealand


When leaders and managers tell me that they find it difficult to “let go of control” and find that work is returned to them in ‘shabby format’ or ‘not up to scratch’ there are always reasons for why this is the case. As it turns out, people don’t consciously set out to do sub-par work. There is always a reason why people behave the way they do and everyone has in them the desire to do good work and make a valuable contribution. The question is, do you want to unlock or block that potential?

Here are some of the consistent reasons that come up when leaders find themselves receiving work that is not to the standard they would have liked:

  • expectations were not clearly set out in the first instance
  • time frames were unreasonable
  • direct reports do not feel comfortable seeking clarity and/or guidance from their leader
  • People feel micro-managed through having every detail of their previous work changed leading to low enthusiasm
  • People simply don’t know what the excellent result looks like and/or how to get there.

Whilst it is sometimes easier and quicker to just do it yourself in the long run it will create an endless list of tasks and dependent team members and leaders find themselves with little time to think strategically as they are caught in the weeds. I have learnt from coaching many clients that effective delegation is as much about technique as it is about the leader’s mindset habits and both need to be addressed for long term results.

Here are some tips for Managers and leaders practicing pro-active delegation:

Don’t expect perfection from the get-go or… at all
 – a major part of your role is to grow your team’s capability, and you can only achieve this if you allow space for your team to learn. When assigning stretch tasks you are asking people to learn on the job through trial and error. The product you receive back is information on where your team member needs support in order for them to develop further. Consider it a data point, not an imperfection.

Take the time to allocate jobs
 to the right people with adequate time frames. Easier said than done! Leaders can sometimes back themselves into a corner by taking on too much (setting unrealistic goals) and then upon realising they can’t do it all alone, demand others support with short time frames. This may be because they are either seeking perfection and can’t let go or they are reluctant to stretch their people into new areas. Avoid throwing people in the deep end, allocate based on how you think people can be stretched, and where feasible where they are in line with their individual goals and aspirations. If you are uncomfortable delegating particular tasks start with small projects that aren’t highly critical.

Encourage them to have a go... And then get out of the way.
 Be prescriptive about what good looks like but don’t over emphasise what you don’t like or over-do how they should approach the task. This is more about you holding onto control than it is about growing others. People will be more effective when encouraged to find their own way of achieving objectives. If you don’t encourage their creativity you may lose out on enormous opportunities that you weren’t aware existed.

Discuss how/what support they need from you to help them.
 If your team members are generally reluctant to seek guidance and feedback, it may be because they feel they need to appear on top of everything when they are with you. Remember you are in a leadership role for a reason, and you are in a position to guide and support others. Encourage them to articulate the type of support that they require from you. This will leave no room for assumptions and provide you with information on how your team member works best.

Encourage open discussion
 – no question is silly, in fact you may find that your team member raises something that you had overlooked. You would rather your team member be instilled with clarity, confidence and excitement to get the job done rather than uncertainty.

Agree on a feedback loop and a deadline. 
Delegating stretch tasks will require some check in’s to give both parties a sense of support. Be committed to the feedback loop deadlines and if you receive a document requiring feedback commit to a 24-48 hour turn around. Try not to re-do every detail but provide guidance on what you’re recommendations are and why. When you are providing the feedback the mindset is one of, how can I help this person develop and grow rather than how can I show them all that is incorrect.

Find out what “float’s your people’s boat”
 inspired by Mary Lemonis at the 2017 Annual Human Synergistics conference, Mary spoke about knowing what your people were truly passionate about. If you know your team members personally it will guide you in effectively delegating things that match personal interest and skill set. It will pay off in multiple ways because your people will feel truly recognised not only for what they can do but what is important to them.

There is a trade-off for effectiveness, and it is time. In the short term you will spend more time growing others but the long term increase in productivity pays off. The less dependent your team are on you, the more time you will have to do other things.