By Tom Davidson
Just as leadership is an art, so is delegation. The more you practice it, the better you get – as long as you are practicing the right things and not relying on your M.O over and over again.
One of the most endemic problems for new managers and experienced executives alike is the ambiguity surrounding when and how much to delegate.
• Delegate too little, and you’re buried in the weeds while your staff goes home on time.
• Delegate too much, and you’re a bane to your subordinates and their work/life balance.
• Oversee the task too little, and you’re considered detached or out of touch.
• Oversee the task too much, and you’re seen as patronizing or mistrustful.
In the first blog post of this series, we discussed the root cause of most delegation problems and the first step in improving your results – knowing your natural tendencies and developing a wider range of approaches. Here, again, are the four most extreme combinations of key personality tendencies that contribute to delegation problems, after which we’ll discuss how to adapt your M.O. (modus operandi) to each situation.
Here’s the bottom line on your style. You can’t rely on using one M.O. for every situation just because it’s comfortable for you. Doing so would be like having only one high-quality, well-used roofing hammer in your tool box when the job at hand calls for 9-millimeter socket wrench! Just as a carpenter (or homeowner) collects additional tools for their workbench over time, so does the effective manager. As this is in progress, the next step in finding the delegation sweet spot is assessing the person, the task and the need.
Great managers know their people exceedingly well, including their experience, skill level, aspirations, interests and personalities. For instance, if a direct report normally takes the initiative, is detail-oriented, and reliable, you may be able to take a more hands-off approach when delegating the work. On the other hand, if they are good at taking order but not self-starters, if they have a cautious attitude or if they have a history of not seeing things through on their own, you may need to be more directive in your direction and diligent in your oversight.
Another key variable in your decision making is the specific task at hand. You should not be too general in your assessment, concluding that one person should be managed more closely and another treated in a more hands-off manner. Your delegation style also depends on the specific assignment or request. For example, if your subordinate is very experienced, interested and skilled in a certain part of the work (perhaps even more expert than you), you should consider giving them more leeway in how to proceed and a wider berth by letting them determine checkpoints and deadlines for themselves.
Here’s the riskiest part of all, assessing the need to delegate from the standpoint of development. Because people learn over 70 percent of what they need to know from on-the-job experience, the manager’s primary tool in developing others is skillful delegation. This means that you sometimes have to delegate something new, different or challenging, something that the subordinate has never done before as a way of enhancing their capacity for future assignments. When you see such an opportunity, think in terms of “baby steps,” giving the associate bits and pieces of larger, more visible and riskier projects. This also requires closer supervision, more than the usual number of check points and frequent course corrections, something closer to micromanagement.
Just as leadership is an art, so is delegation. The more you practice it, the better you get – as long as you are practicing the right things and not relying on your M.O over and over again. You may never be perfectly satisfied with your approach or the result, but that’s the ambiguous and imperfect nature of leadership.
For the third – and most tactical – part of this blog series, look for part 3 of The Macro on Micromanagement, how to give the delegation itself, the contract and the follow-up plan of action.
For more information on delegation, see Chapter 3 of The 8 Greatest Mistakes New Managers Make by Tom Davidson, Rumford Academy Publishing, 2010).