Delegation is a skill of which we have all heard - but which few understand. It can be used either as an excuse for dumping failure onto the shoulders of subordinates, or as a dynamic tool for motivating and training your team to realize their full potential.
"I delegate myne auctorite" (Palsgrave 1530)
Everyone knows about delegation. Most managers hear about it in the cradle as mother talks earnestly to the baby-sitter: "just enjoy the television ... this is what you do if ... if there is any trouble call me at ..."; people have been writing about it for nearly half a millennium; yet few actually understand it.
Delegation underpins a style of management which allows your staff to use and develop their skills and knowledge to the full potential. Without delegation, you lose their full value.
As the ancient quotation above suggests, delegation is primarily about entrusting your authority to others. This means that they can act and initiate independently; and that they assume responsibility with you for certain tasks. If something goes wrong, you remain responsible since you are the manager; the trick is to delegate in such a way that things get done but do not go (badly) wrong.
The objective of delegation is to get the job done by someone else. Not just the simple tasks of reading instructions and turning a lever, but also the decision making and changes which depend upon new information. With delegation, your staff have the authority to react to situations without referring back to you.
If you tell the janitor to empty the bins on Tuesdays and Fridays, the bins will be emptied on Tuesdays and Fridays. If the bins overflow on Wednesday, they will be emptied on Friday. If instead you said to empty the bins as often as necessary, the janitor would decide how often and adapt to special circumstances. You might suggest a regular schedule (teach the janitor a little personal time management), but by leaving the decision up to the janitor you will apply his/her local knowledge to the problem. Consider this frankly: do you want to be an expert on bin emptying, can you construct an instruction to cover all possible contingencies? If not, delegate to someone who gets paid for it.
To enable someone else to do the job for you, you must ensure that:
These all depend upon communicating clearly the nature of the task, the extent of their discretion, and the sources of relevant information and knowledge.
Such a system can only operate successfully if the decision-makers (your staff) have full and rapid access to the relevant information. This means that you must establish a system to enable the flow of information. This must at least include regular exchanges between your staff so that each is aware of what the others are doing. It should also include briefings by you on the information which you have received in your role as manager; since if you need to know this information to do your job, your staff will need to know also if they are to do your (delegated) job for you.
One of the main claims being made for computerized information distribution is that it facilitates the rapid dissemination of information. Some protagonists even suggest that such systems will instigate changes in managerial power sharing rather than merely support them: that the "enknowledged" workforce will rise up, assume control and innovate spontaneously. You may not believe this vision, but you should understand the premise. If a manager restricts access to information, then only he/she is able to make decisions which rely upon that information; once that access is opened to many others, they too can make decisions - and challenge those of the manager according to additional criteria. The manager who fears this challenge will never delegate effectively; the manager who recognizes that the staff may have additional experience and knowledge (and so may enhance the decision-making process) will welcome their input; delegation ensures that the staff will practise decision-making and will feel that their views are welcome.
One of the main phobias about delegation is that by giving others authority, a manager loses control. This need not be the case. If you train your staff to apply the same criteria as you would yourself (by example and full explanations) then they will be exercising your control on you behalf. And since they will witness many more situations over which control may be exercised (you can't be in several places at once) then that control is exercised more diversely and more rapidly than you could exercise it by yourself. In engineering terms: if maintaining control is truly your concern, then you should distribute the control mechanisms to enable parallel and autonomous processing.
To understand delegation, you really have to think about people. Delegation cannot be viewed as an abstract technique, it depends upon individuals and individual needs. Let us take a lowly member of staff who has little or no knowledge about the job which needs to be done.
Do you say: "Jimmy, I want a draft tender for contract of the new Hydro Powerstation on my desk by Friday"? No. Do you say: "Jimmy, Jennifer used to do the tenders for me. Spend about an hour with her going over how she did them and try compiling one for the new Hydro Powerstation. She will help you for this one, but do come to me if she is busy with a client. I want a draft by Friday so that I can look over it with you"? Possibly.
The key is to delegate gradually. If you present someone with a task which is daunting, one with which he/she does not feel able to cope, then the task will not be done and your staff will be severely demotivated. Instead you should build-up gradually; first a small task leading to a little development, then another small task which builds upon the first; when that is achieved, add another stage; and so on. This is the difference between asking people to scale a sheer wall, and providing them with a staircase. Each task delegated should have enough complexity to stretch that member of staff - but only a little.
Jimmy needs to feel confident. He needs to believe that he will actually be able to achieve the task which has been given to him. This means that either he must have the sufficient knowledge, or he must know where to get it or where to get help. So, you must enable access to the necessary knowledge. If you hold that knowledge, make sure that Jimmy feels able to come to you; if someone else holds the knowledge, make sure that they are prepared for Jimmy to come to them. Only if Jimmy is sure that support is available will he feel confident enough to undertake a new job.
You need to feel confident in Jimmy: this means keeping an eye on him. It would be fatal to cast Jimmy adrift and expect him to make it to the shore: keep an eye on him, and a lifebelt handy. It is also a mistake to keep wandering up to Jimmy at odd moments and asking for progress reports: he will soon feel persecuted. Instead you must agree beforehand how often and when you actually need information and decide the reporting schedule at the onset. Jimmy will then expect these encounters and even feel encouraged by your continuing support; you will be able to check upon progress and even spur it on a little.
When you do talk to Jimmy about the project, you should avoid making decisions of which Jimmy is capable himself. The whole idea is for Jimmy to learn to take over and so he must be encouraged to do so. Of course, with you there to check his decisions, Jimmy will feel freer to do so. If Jimmy is wrong - tell him, and explain very carefully why. If Jimmy is nearly right - congratulate him, and suggest possible modifications; but, of course, leave Jimmy to decide. Finally, unless your solution has significant merits over Jimmy's, take his: it costs you little, yet rewards him much.
There is a danger with "open access" that you become too involved with the task you had hoped to delegate. One successful strategy to avoid this is to formalize the manner in which these conversation take place. One formalism is to allow only fixed, regular encounters (except for emergencies) so that Jimmy has to think about issues and questions before raising them; you might even insist that he draw-up an agenda. A second formalism is to refuse to make a decision unless Jimmy has provided you with a clear statement of alternatives, pros and cons, and his recommendation. This is my favourite. It allows Jimmy to rehearse the full authority of decision making while secure in the knowledge that you will be there to check the outcome. Further, the insistence upon evaluation of alternatives promotes good decision making practices. If Jimmy is right, then Jimmy's confidence increases - if you disagree with Jimmy, he learns something new (provided you explain your criteria) and so his knowledge increases. Which ever way, he benefits; and the analysis is provided for you.
Let us consider your undoubtedly high standards. When you delegate a job, it does not have to be done as well as you could do it (given time), but only as well as necessary: never judge the outcome by what you expect you would do (it is difficult to be objective about that), but rather by fitness for purpose. When you delegate a task, agree then upon the criteria and standards by which the outcome will be judged.
You must enable failure. With appropriate monitoring, you should be able to catch mistakes before they are catastrophic; if not, then the failure is yours. You are the manager, you decided that Jimmy could cope, you gave him enough rope to hang himself, you are at fault. Now that that is cleared up, let us return to Jimmy. Suppose Jimmy gets something wrong; what do you want to happen?
Firstly, you want it fixed. Since Jimmy made the mistake, it is likely that he will need some input to develop a solution: so Jimmy must feel safe in approaching you with the problem. Thus you must deal primarily with the solution rather than the cause (look forward, not backwards). The most desirable outcome is that Jimmy provides the solution.
Once that is dealt with, you can analyse the cause. Do not fudge the issue; if Jimmy did something wrong say so, but only is very specific terms. Avoid general attacks on his parents: "were you born this stupid?", and look to the actual event or circumstance which led to the error: "you did not take account of X in your decision". Your objectives are to ensure that Jimmy:
The safest ethos to cultivate is one where Jimmy actually looks for and anticipates mistakes. If you wish to promote such behaviour, you should always praise Jimmy for his prompt and wise action in spotting and dealing with the errors rather that castigate him for causing them. Here the emphasis is placed upon checking/testing/monitoring of ideas. Thus you never criticise Jimmy for finding an error, only for not having safe-guards in place.
There is always the question of what to delegate and what to do yourself, and you must take a long term view on this: you want to delegate as much as possible to develop you staff to be as good as you are now.
The starting point is to consider the activities you used to do before you were promoted. You used to do them when you were more junior, so someone junior can do them now. Tasks in which you have experience are the easiest for you to explain to others and so to train them to take over. You thus use your experience to ensure that the task is done well, rather than to actually perform the task yourself. In this way you gain time for your other duties and someone else becomes as good as your once were (increasing the strength of the group).
Tasks in which your staff have more experience must be delegated to them. This does not mean that you relinquish responsibility because they are expert, but it does mean that the default decision should be theirs. To be a good manager though, you should ensure that they spend some time in explaining these decisions to you so that you learn their criteria.
Decisions are a normal managerial function: these too should be delegated - especially if they are important to the staff. In practice, you will need to establish the boundaries of these decisions so that you can live with the outcome, but this will only take you a little time while the delegation of the remainder of the task will save you much more.
In terms of motivation for your staff, you should distribute the more mundane tasks as evenly as possible; and sprinkle the more exciting onces as widely. In general, but especially with the boring tasks, you should be careful to delegate not only the performance of the task but also its ownership. Task delegation, rather than task assignment, enables innovation. The point you need to get across is that the task may be changed, developed, upgraded, if necessary or desirable. So someone who collates the monthly figures should not feel obliged to blindly type them in every first-Monday; but should feel empowered to introduce a more effective reporting format, to use Computer Software to enhance the data processing, to suggest and implement changes to the task itself.
Since delegation is about handing over authority, you cannot dictate what is delegated nor how that delegation is to be managed. To control the delegation, you need to establish at the beginning the task itself, the reporting schedule, the sources of information, your availability, and the criteria of success. These you must negotiate with your staff: only by obtaining both their input and their agreement can you hope to arrive at a workable procedure.
Once you have delegated everything, what do you do then?
You still need to monitor the tasks you have delegated and to continue the development of your staff to help them exercise their authority well.
There are managerial functions which you should never delegate - these are the personal/personnel ones which are often the most obvious additions to your responsibilities as you assume a managerial role. Specifically, they include: motivation, training, team-building, organization, praising, reprimanding, performance reviews, promotion.
As a manager, you have a responsibility to represent and to develop the effectiveness of your group within the company; these are tasks you can expand to fill your available time - delegation is a mechanism for creating that opportunity.
Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (email@example.com) or by any other method found here