My Humble Beginnings
One of the teams I used to work with had a great update meeting every Monday morning. The purpose of it was to take stock of the previous week and clarify priorities for the upcoming week. Because everyone on the team had fairly independent roles and responsibilities, this was one of the few instances to get real insights into what everyone on the team was doing and get on the same page. It was always every individual’s responsibility to report on their tasks, explaining what they’re working on, and the progress that they’ve made.
When a new person joined this team, they were obviously unable to give a comprehensive update within their first few weeks because their tasks and responsibilities were still in the process of being shaped and built. That said, about a month into that position, I found myself stepping in on their behalf in that meeting. As the team lead, I was always fully up to date on everyone’s progress and when I found them struggling to participate, I stepped in to fill the long awkward pauses, in the hope that the team’s time wouldn’t be spent waiting and that that person wouldn’t feel put on the spot. However, giving their update in their place was a clear sign of delegation gone wrong.
The Obstacles To Getting Delegation Right
Delegation is a much-touted concept in management. It’s one of the first ways to move away from top-down management, to a more inclusive style that enables and empowers employees. It’s incredibly difficult to do right. You have to toe the line between delegating just enough that your team members feel motivated and challenged, and not so much that they feel overwhelmed or assume you’re passing off some of your work. There will be moments like the scenario I just described, where you notice the way you’re doing something is completely counterintuitive to everything you believe in and the way you aspire to lead. I never had a chance to explicitly address this with that person but I still wonder to this day how they perceived the situation. Did they see it as the failure of leadership that it was? Did they feel like they had no room to take ownership of their tasks? Did they perhaps feel relieved because it prevented them from having to do that? It was so clearly against how the team worked; the culture of independence and empowerment that we’d all worked hard to develop, where I tried to present my role more in terms of a coach or a sparring partner. It was a great opportunity to learn more about delegation.
Delegation doesn’t come naturally to many managers for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it requires a huge degree of trust. It’s hard to move away from the (usually well-founded) belief that if you do something yourself, you’ll be able to do it better and faster. In most cases, this is actually true. You have a much clearer idea of what kind of outcome you’re looking for. It’s much less complex than trying to communicate this vision to someone else, then give them enough freedom to see if they can figure out how to get there themselves, provide support along the way, and at the very end assess their performance and give feedback.
Delegating effectively is a long, involved process. It can be stressful, not just for yourself, but also for the person you’re delegating to. If you give them a task that’s a little too far out of their comfort zone, it will be a challenging process for both of you. It’s still possible that they will succeed but it depends a lot on their drive, their ability to stretch themselves and pick new skills up quickly, and whether they’re able to ask for help or not. These are all things that take time to develop. As a manager, you have to learn to delegate tasks that match the level of your individual team members. They can’t be too hard, but they also can’t be too easy. If all you’re delegating are the mindless and repetitive tasks of your job, it’ll be very clear to the people around you that you’re just trying to avoid those very tasks. If you delegate a little too much responsibility, there’s a risk that a whole project fails and you have to spend twice or three times as much time trying to sort it out again. A costly luxury few of us can afford.
The other challenge with delegating is that it’s very easy to give the wrong impression. If you delegate tasks that your team perceives as key to your role (for example, setting up an onboarding process), it’s easy to have them question why you’re delegating it with the question “but isn’t that your job?”. Some parts of your role as a manager you cannot and should not delegate. Most people management tasks will fall under that heading. But while it’s great to question why you need to be solely responsible for any project, it’s important to talk to your team about it in such a way that they understand the purpose isn’t to simply make your life easier, because you want to avoid boring or difficult tasks, or because you don’t want to do any work yourself.
The Amazing Benefits Of A More Responsible Team Grown On Delegation
Delegation pays off when done well because it shares responsibility and provides great opportunities for development. The more your team members feel responsible for the projects that you work on, the more driven and motivated they will be to see them through to completion. Fostering that kind of engagement is one of the best things you can do for your team as a leader. If they perceive everything as “your job,” they’ll never feel the same kind of commitment to it as when they take ownership and feel like it’s their responsibility.
Development is a goal in and of itself. It also helps in fostering engagement and motivation but more than anything it enables your team members to develop skills without needing to change their core role. Over time, it’ll help you get your team closer to the idea of “managers of one.” In a totally ideal company, where everything works perfectly, the role of the manager would be incredibly limited, especially when it comes to middle management. If every individual is fully capable of self-managing their own tasks and the team as a whole was able to work cohesively, in a way in which everyone holds everyone else accountable, very few tasks would be left for a manager. The idea of becoming superfluous might feel a little uncomfortable but one of the hallmarks of a great leader is trying to develop everyone in their team in that direction. Delegation is one of the best available tools to achieve that. It won’t work for every job or for every person, but if you manage to build an independent and self-reliant team, you’ll have the strongest, highest performing team that you possibly can have. This is why it’s worth aspiring towards.
The last tangential benefit of delegation is that it’ll spread your workload a little more evenly amongst your team. It’s not great to have the kind of dynamic where the manager is extremely busy and running around all the time, while the team feels listless and idle. You want everyone in the team to feel equally as busy during busy times, and equally as relaxed during relaxed times. This is another way to build a cohesive team culture because it forces everyone to pull together and support each other when it’s necessary. The larger the divide that you create between your role as manager and your team, the harder it’ll be for your team to perceive you as a member of the team and the harder it’ll be for you to bridge that gap at some point in the future.
There are many ways to tackle delegation in a structured and comprehensive way as a manager. Here’s 8 of them to get you started!
Follow These 8 Steps To Get There:
1. Cluster your tasks into different levels
Go through all the things that you do regularly and cluster them according to whether they’re possible to delegate and how easy they are to delegate. It’s probably a bad idea to delegate certain tasks, like one-on-ones or performance reviews. Most companies with a typical management structure use the implementation of a hierarchical system to enable a smooth people management structure. That means you should probably handle all of those responsibilities directly.
Some of your tasks might be highly complex and while they have the potential to be delegated, they may require someone who’s already able to handle a high degree of complexity. These could be tasks like figuring out how to roll out a whole new system or setting up a project that involves multiple stakeholders from scratch. For these tasks, break down the specific skills that a person would need to be able to manage them well. Since they can be quite varied, it’s worth doing this for each individual task that falls into this category. Delegating these tasks can be more risky but, if you have the skills available in your team, it can also be incredibly rewarding for both you and the team member you delegate to.
Other tasks might be a bit simpler like writing documentation for a project, answering a specific type of email or becoming a temporary liaison with another department. “Simple” doesn’t mean that they don’t require skills to manage. Every task calls upon some kind of skill to be done well. Simple just means that it’s highly likely that those skills are already within your team and the task itself doesn’t involve as many moving parts or require the same kind of broader perspective that a more complex task would need. These are likely to be the tasks that are easiest for you to delegate because the desired outcome will almost always be clear. There also won’t be as many options when it comes to how to approach the task, so the likelihood of your team member going in the totally wrong direction is much lower.
Once you’ve built this overview of your own tasks, you can start thinking about what you can delegate to whom.
2. Figure out the strengths and weaknesses of every individual in your team
As a manager, one of your key responsibilities is to assess the performance of your team members. Performance assessment is extremely complex. It’s important to be able to separate someone’s personality or character traits from their job performance. Identifying strengths and weaknesses should be completely focused on the professional. Start by assessing the skills that are necessary for success in their role. Imagine the perfect person fulfilling this position. What skills would they have? What would they be able to do really well? Figure out a brief schema for each role. Then when you’re looking at each person in your team, evaluate their performance according to every skill you laid out. Focus on finding specific examples that match (or don’t match, as the case may be) the behaviour you want to see. The more explicit you are about the examples, the easier it’ll be to have conversations about this and to be very clear in your communication with your team member.
You should also think about their personality and what their natural inclinations are. This is basically getting to know your team members. If you manage to develop a clear, coherent understanding of everyone in your team, it’ll be one of your greatest assets as a manager. Think of how they respond in different situations. How do they deal with challenges? How do they handle feedback? What makes them get defensive? What motivates them? Are they the kind of person who would volunteer for anything? Do they find it hard to do things outside of their comfort zone? This is the kind of information you can only pick up through observation, time, and experience.
If you don’t feel like you have a clear handle on this already, there are a lot of tools out there that can help you with both. StrengthsFinder 2.0 is a framework developed by Gallup that identifies a person’s strengths with the help of a quiz. It also gives you suggestions for how those strengths can be further developed. This can translate extremely well when it comes to identifying strengths and weaknesses. The Big 5 Personality Traits is another model that’s great for understanding where a person’s natural inclinations are. Canadian psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Jordan Peterson has an online quiz that will share similar information. 16 Personalities is yet another option and that one is mostly free. It takes a measure of trust and comfort to participate in a quiz like this and then share the results, so it’s usually easier to do it as a team and share your own results as well.
3. Think of the best development path for each individual in your team
I’m a huge believer in a person developing according to their strengths because people have much more potential to go from good at something to extremely good, rather than to go from bad to good. It’s also much easier and more motivating for the individual because they’ll see progress a lot quicker. Only focus on weaknesses if they’re actively limiting the person in their job. For example, struggling to get outside of your comfort zone might be a personality trait. Some people just prefer stability. This isn’t a problem in and of itself. In a job, that might manifest itself as a reluctance to try out new things. It might also mean they’re less likely to volunteer or to push themselves to improve. If these are essential for their success in their role, then it’s worth talking about it. If, however, they’re able to fulfil the requirements of their position completely and with no problems, then this character trait has no bearing on their performance.
In this context, thinking of development paths does not mean working out development plans for each individual and actively guiding them there. That’s a much more involved process and can only happen through discussions with that person. It just means thinking about what actually makes sense for this person, based on what you know of their performance, their interests, and what they’re good at. Ideally, the tasks that you delegate should be part of a broader plan and match what they and you are working towards in terms of their development. Take the time to think about what makes sense for them before you proceed.
4. Match the tasks that you can delegate to the right person.
Now that you’ve done all the background work of figuring out which of your tasks can be delegated and where your team members lie on the huge spectrum of skills that are necessary for those tasks, this step should be relatively easy. To judge if you’ve matched a task to the right person, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do they have the prerequisite skills to have a good chance at succeeding? Your answer should be yes. Make sure you can justify it. How have they shown you that they’re capable of doing it?
- Do they have the right temperament or personal inclination to even be interested in this task? Will the task develop them in a direction that they care about? For example, it doesn’t make sense to delegate the task of preparing a presentation to someone who absolutely hates giving presentations and who doesn’t believe that developing that skill is important for them. If someone does recognise that this is a skill they can or should work on, then you can go ahead.
- Is there any other person better suited for this task? The answer here doesn’t have to be no but you should be able to articulate exactly why you’re giving it to one person over another.
- Why exactly do you want to delegate this task? There’s a difference between delegating to lessen your own workload and delegating to reward good performance. If you want to encourage someone by giving them more opportunities because they’ve been working extremely hard, the way you communicate this should be very different.
Err on the side of giving ambitious people the more challenging tasks because they’ll be driven and committed to following through. People who prefer stability and comfort will need many more incremental changes over a longer period of time. Both are completely fine. You just need to identify the right tasks for the right people.
5. Communicate the task and your vision
In order to set someone up to truly succeed, your communication about your expectations has to be on point. Hopefully, your background work should be useful here too because one of the byproducts of clustering your tasks and figuring out the skills needed for them is understanding the kind of outcome you want.
When you talk to your team member about the task, make sure you talk about the why: why this task and why them. This will help them understand your intentions and give them a clearer impression of what you’re looking for. The next thing you need to do is imagine the perfect end result. Focus purely on the outcome and then break it down, so you can describe it better. What aspects are essential? What aspects are nice to have? At what point is the task officially finished? What would make it successful?
Take some time to write yourself some notes about this before you go into a meeting with your team member. It’s important to be as clear as possible at this point or the likelihood of your team member heading in the wrong direction or finding it difficult to get started will be quite high. The more information you give them at this point, the easier it’ll be for both of you.
6. Provide ongoing support
Be clear about how often you’ll be checking in with each other. Figure out a schedule and a format. Every check-in should include an overview of the current status, progress made in the last while since you spoke, and an idea of what the next steps will be. Always ask if there are blockers or if there are additional things they need help with. This should cover the basics when it comes to providing ongoing support.
In a totally ideal scenario, you’d be able to communicate your goal and vision and then let your team member figure out their way to get there. This is quite high-level delegation though. It requires the team member to be pretty skilled at working with minimal direction. Your responsibility is to provide exactly as much direction as they need, whenever they need it. If they don’t need very much, then all you need to do is check in at regular intervals and give them feedback on how they’re doing. If they need a lot more direction, you might have to step in more often. Maybe the person you’ve delegated to needs help in getting started. In that case, you should set up a meeting where you try to prompt them to break the task down into chronological steps and then get them to document it before they start working on them. If you find the person stuck and unable to come up with anything, you can gently suggest and help them brainstorm. Your focus should always be on coaching and guiding them to coming up with things on their own though. If you’re doing 90% of the thinking and they’re simply following your lead, this is a giant red flag that the task might be too complex for them. If this doesn’t get better with time and you find yourself needing to provide the same level of support for months, this should form the basis of your feedback conversations and performance discussions with them.
Watch out for any signs that someone is uncomfortable asking for help. This is one of the most difficult things to handle as a manager and is another red flag that someone might be the wrong person to delegate something to. A certain level of independence and desire to manage things on their own is of course important. It’s okay for you to make an effort to check in more often with that person but if tasks stop moving completely until you do that, this is another thing to address.
Observe how the person works to judge if you’re providing the right amount of support. If they ever seem overwhelmed or stuck, talk to them about it. It’s important to address issues as quickly as possible and to give them the impression that you’re available and willing to help whenever they need it. Providing this kind of safety net is a way to make the whole exercise a lot less stressful for everyone involved.
That said, be very self-critical. It’s possible that the reason you’re stepping in so much is because you have a very clear idea of how the project should be done. In this case, you need to learn how to coach without micromanaging. If you’re keeping such a close eye on their progress because you need it, not them, then this is something that you should work on and try to improve. The point of delegation is the exact opposite of micromanagement. Remember that you need a basic level of trust that this person can do a great job at this specific task before you delegate it. If you’ve done your preparation work properly, there’s no reason to not give them more space.
If it doesn’t seem to be working out, you should step in and take over that task again. How soon you do this depends a lot on how urgent the task is. Make sure you give the person enough of a chance to really work on it. Give them feedback regularly, explain what isn’t working, and give them time to improve or change it. If you do this two or three times with no progress, then it’s time for you to act. Don’t let things like this drag on for a longer period of time because they’re uncomfortable to address.
7. Empower them as much as possible
Your goal as a manager should be to hand tasks over completely. In an ideal scenario, you wouldn’t even need to be involved because the person you’ve delegated to is able to do such a great job so independently that your role is simply to be aware of what they’re doing. It also really takes the fun out of any new project if it feels like your boss is just handing over a to-do list and expecting you to follow it. Delegating effectively means giving someone responsibility and actually letting them figure out how to handle that. This is when it becomes a tool for development and that is why empowerment is so important. Empowerment is what gives people a sense of ownership and that ownership is what makes them engaged and motivated in what they’re doing. The worst thing you could do is drain that energy by micromanaging every single little step. If you need that level of control, you should not have delegated the task to begin with.
8. Be clear about the decision-maker
Try to clarify who the final decision-maker is from the very beginning. Is the purpose of the project to make a recommendation based on some criteria but then you, the manager, will be deciding what the best course of action is? Is the purpose to actually implement something? Do you expect them to simply inform you of what they’re implementing, do you want time to give advice but let them make the final decision, or do you want to approve what they’re doing? These kinds of nuances can make a huge difference. If they’re clear from the beginning, it’ll be much easier for everyone involved. Lack of clarity about who’s responsible for making a decision will always slow a project down and can lead to easily avoidable conflict when someone acts but you don’t want them to. Ideally, you want to hand over as many decisions to them as possible. This is part of empowering them as much as you can.
There are good tools like Delegation Poker from Management 3.0 that you could use to figure this out. Collect the different decisions that will need to be made throughout the course of the project. Each of you can suggest their desired level of delegation and what they would expect for that decision. Then you can discuss the differences and agree on something.
Assessing your success at delegation is quite simple. All you need to do is assess the success of the person you delegated to. Did they manage to complete the task to a high degree of quality? Did you need to step in and take over certain areas of the project or were they able to carry it through by themselves? Did you need to invest less time in the task than if you had done it yourself? If you didn’t, does it at least seem like the person has developed the skills to be able to do the same task next time without guidance from you? Your metrics should be the person’s success, their own development, and your time investment. If it worked out on any of these levels, that’s already great. If it worked on all of them, you did an awesome job at matching the task to the right person.
Additional Resources For You To Get Started Now
If you’re looking to get started delegating your team more, we’re planning on creating the following additional resources to help you out:
- A template that you can use to cluster your tasks and identify what can and can’t be delegated
- An example breakdown of the skills needed at each level
- A set of different approaches based on the Big 5 Personality Traits model so you can identify potential risks with different people and how to tackle them
If any one of these sound like exactly what you’d need right now, feel free to contact me via email and I’ll try and expedite producing that particular resource for you. Hope you’ve found a bunch you can apply in your day-to-day here, cheers and see you next time!