Good delegation is a major challenge for most people: poor delegation is a major time waster. It doesn’t come naturally – we have to learn it, just as good leadership doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We grow up with a bias to action, and to be good delegators we have to learn to step back and help others do the work we used to do.
However, it is a high-performance leadership style that produces long-term results, and is well worth the pain of learning to do it well.
One of the most critical keys to successful delegation is communication. If you can communicate effectively, so that the people around you clearly understand what you’re saying, you will be effective.
Two regular mistakes, and how to fix them
1. Available too much of the time.
2. Too much unnecessary detail to competent staff.
Interruptions plague most people, in education as well as business. We’ve come out of the dark ages where bosses never communicated anything to their underlings, through the development of open communication and empowerment, to the point where many people feel they have to ‘be available’ all day.
So where does delegation fit in here? Being ‘there for your staff’ 100% of the time is not good management. In fact, it causes bottlenecks, frustration, low morale, and blocks your staff from learning and developing their own skills.
1. If a staff member is competent, don’t overdo details. Instead, give the big picture of what you want to achieve, and see what they come up with. Of course you’re willing to guide, coach and review, but beware of unnecessary detail.
2. If competent people keep interrupting you with queries they should know, ask them to bring two solutions with every question. If you’re too quick to supply the answer you encourage laziness and dependency. It’s human nature to take the easy road, so why not ask – saves thinking.
Keys to delegation
a. Delegation is not one action – it’s a process – direct, then coach, then support, and only when they’re fully educated can we can expect staff to take full responsibility, i.e. delegation. (Kenneth Blanchard’s ‘Leadership and the One Minute Manager’ goes into this in more depth.)
b. What exactly is the job? Until you can explain it clearly, you will not get good results.
c. Have you got the right person for the job? Don’t waste your resources trying to pick acorns off an apple tree.
d. Carefully describe the result you want.
e. This next one is a vital step. Have your chosen person explain back to you what they have understood. This step takes time initially, but often saves hours at the other end.
One key phrase NOT to use is “Do you understand?” No one wants to look silly. Most of us, if asked that question, will say ‘yes’.
Instead, take responsibility for the possibility of mis-communication and say something like: “In case I haven’t made myself quite clear, could you tell me how you’ll go about it”, or “What would you like me to go over again?” Most of us can only hold about 2½ instructions in our head at any one time? Don’t explain too much at once.
f. Tell them what authority or resources they have access to. If you’ve given them access to resources they wouldn’t normally have, tell anyone else who may question them, or need to know.
g. Be clear about when the task needs to be completed.
h. If necessary, demonstrate. Having demonstrated, let them have a practicewhile you watch and guide. John Cleese, of “Fawlty Towers” fame, is credited with the phrase (probably in one of his ‘Video Arts’ training videos) “I do it normal, I do it slow, I do it with you, and off you go”. If you start to feel impatient, just remember the first time you tried to make a computer do what you told it.
i. Leave them alone to get on with the job. There is nothing more off-putting than a senior person watching while you try to practise.
A school principal told me how, as a student seeking holiday work, he had the chance to work for two hay-making contractors. One man told him how to drive the big unwieldy tractor and bailer round the paddock, and then stood watching him, yelling every time he went even fractionally crooked. He ended up feeling really jittery and incompetent.
The second man explained, gave him a bit of practicewhile he watched, and then went away for about half-an-hour, saying “Have a practise, and then I’ll come back and see how you’re getting on.” Guess whom he chose to keep working for? Once he’d had some ‘mistake’ time, he got the hang of the technique very quickly, and became very good at his job.
j. Set a time to review and inspect what you have delegated. If the delegatee is inexperienced the review time might be as little as 5 minutes, but it is important to give them time on their own.
k. One of the common faults with delegation is that people forget how long it took them to learn the task they’re now showing someone else. Be realistic. After all, you don’t want your new staff member to be too much quicker off the mark than you, do you?! You may have to show them more than once. That’s O.K.
l. Praise and encourage. If managers recognised the power of praise, they would use it always as a management tool. Praise gives life, and sets people free. There is not enough of it in the workplace. Praise releases energy, criticism kills it.
Remember always – once someone is trained, a good team leader directs what needs to be done, not how it’s done.