New managers must learn what and how to delegate

Delegating tasks to others might sound like a simple thing, but it actually requires quite a bit of finesse. Get one management guru's take on the best way to approach delegation.

TechRepublic member RC Lopez, a network systems engineer for a financial organization in Illinois, made an insightful comment in response to a recent TechRepublic article discussing delegation. RC expressed some frustration at a manager who often identifies tasks for others to do but then jumps in and takes care of them himself before anyone has a chance to do anything. RC said, "By not delegating, the manager gives the impression that he either doesn't trust anyone to do the job or that he is trying to be a maverick."

RC touched on a deadly sin for any manager—delegating tasks to staff only to snatch them back again before they can be accomplished. Unfortunately, this is a common mistake for many new managers who have not yet learned how and what to delegate or how to demonstrate the patience necessary to see the process through to its conclusion.

Delegation is not an instinctive reaction for most human beings, but effective managers recognize the importance of delegation—both for the sake of their own success as leaders and for the overall health of the team. They learn how to determine what should and should not be delegated and what it will take to help staff be successful at the delegated tasks.

When entering the "delegation zone," you should follow these guidelines:
  • Accept that delegation is important.
  • Plan your delegation strategy.
  • Use common sense when delegating.
  • Give your staff a chance to succeed.
  • Examine your personal motivations when delegating.

Let's examine each of these a bit further.

Accept that delegation is important
Delegation is a key part of being a good manager. To be successful, you need to demonstrate the vision to understand broad goals and objectives for the team and then determine what it will take to get there. This will most often involve relinquishing specific tasks and responsibilities to others so you can spend more time managing team members, enriching their skills and keeping morale high. Delegation is much more than a nice thing to do—it is an essential thing to do.

Plan your delegation strategy
Think carefully about what tasks and responsibilities can or should be delegated. A machine gun approach to delegation, where task assignments are made on a whim or without much thought, will create a chaotic work environment. Start by determining what your core responsibilities are. Then, determine what responsibilities can be delegated to others. These will involve activities that are important but that do not define your role as team leader, or compromise your ability to manage if you hand them off.

Use common sense when delegating
Take a realistic look at your work team before committing to delegation. If a highly competent staff person is already working overtime to keep up with her work, don't surprise her with the good news that you are adding more responsibilities to her plate. Discuss the reasons for delegating responsibilities with the person who is to receive them and develop an implementation plan. It may be useful to share this discussion with the entire work team to receive feedback on how the process will affect everyone on the team.

Give your staff a chance to succeed
Make sure that staff members who receive delegated responsibilities have the skills and experience needed to succeed. Don't assume that staff members will figure things out on their own—provide mentoring and training if necessary. It is also important to thoroughly explain your performance expectations and then closely monitor how things are going. This does not mean that you will jump in and take over the responsibilities at the first sign of trouble. Rather, you anticipate potential problems and ensure that staff members have the support needed to deal with them successfully.

Examine your personal motivations when delegating
An ineffective manager will often earn the reputation for passing off unpleasant assignments or "hot potatoes" to staff members. Ask yourself why you are delegating a responsibility to someone else. If it is because it is unpleasant or is one of those thankless tasks that almost always leads to negative feedback from others, consider keeping it. Your team will usually see through motives that are self-serving or based on avoidance.

An example scenario
Let's consider the following scenario, which illustrates these important points about delegation. Betty is a vice president for operations for a medium-size company in the Midwest. She recently hired Ray as a new LAN administrator and was anticipating that he would do a great job. He did not have much management experience but had an impressive technical background and a nice, easygoing personality.

Betty walked by Ray's office one day and saw him with his head in his hands. Since he seemed in some distress, she asked him what was wrong. Ray explained that he had recently delegated responsibilities for LAN technical modifications to a support team member, Ron. However, things were not going very smoothly, and he was ready to throw in the towel and take the responsibilities back. Betty asked Ray three questions:
  • Did you thoroughly brief Ron on what your expectations were and the timeline for achieving results?
  • Does Ron have the skills and experience to take on such an important task?
  • How long had it been since he delegated the responsibilities to Ron?

Ray said that he felt that Ron had been properly briefed on his new responsibilities although he did acknowledge that there had not been a formal meeting to ensure that expectations were clear. Ray also indicated that Ron seemed to have the skills and ability to take on the assignment, but that he had never actually been responsible for such a large project before. Finally, Ray acknowledged that it had been only two weeks since he delegated responsibility for the technical modifications to Ron.

Betty suggested that Ray keep Ron on the assignment but that he sign him up for a project management training course that was being held later that week. Betty also recommended that Ray set up a schedule of briefings where Ron could update Ray on progress and receive advice from Ray on how to handle problems and issues.

Betty complimented Ray for his diligence in making sure that the LAN modifications went smoothly. However, she advised him to take a deep breath and then focus on managing the process so that his staff person had the greatest chance to succeed.

The moral of this story is that delegation does not generally come naturally to people. It is a process that needs to be managed and requires considerable planning and monitoring to be successful.

Final thoughts
To be an effective manager, you must learn to use delegation as a way to increase the knowledge and skills of staff members while freeing up your time to focus on management. Delegation can be time consuming and distracting, especially if employees lack experience with what they are being asked to do. The commitment to using delegation as a management tool requires patience and the willingness to work through problems that will undoubtedly occur. However, the long-term payoff in the efficient workflow of the team and positive morale of its members can far outweigh any short-term difficulties experienced.

Two useful books on delegation are The Agile Manager's Guide to Delegating Work by Joseph T. Straub (1998) and Delegation and Empowerment: Leading with and Through Others by Michael E. Ward with Bettye MacPhail-Wilcox (1999).

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