Delegating trust

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 Apr 2010

19 Apr 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Delegation - sound simple?

Delegation sounds so simple, and is often taught in a very prescriptive manner be SMART in the process and provide the support people need. Yet this oh-so practical approach belies the fraught emotions that can go with delegating important responsibility.

We all need stretching targets to help us grow and learn. We will all make mistakes along the way. Applied to ourselves, this is obvious. Applied to our team, we may see it as a source of potential disaster and react by micro managing all around us.

Control mechanism

At the heart of good delegation is control. Without a control mechanism, you are dumping on others, and shirking your own responsibility. You're also probably causing yourself needless extra worry and work.  

A control system is not a sign that you dont trust someone. Actually it is quite the reverse. It implies that you trust them to be honest in the control process and are freeing yourself of the burden to constantly checking up. A control mechanism establishes the point at which remedial action is needed and flags up warning signs as this point is approached.

Try a RAG Report

At its simplest, you might use a RAG report. This is a document which lists the major milestones or tasks in a project. On a regular basis, perhaps weekly or monthly, you might require a report stating which milestones are on target (Green), which are experiencing problems (Amber) and which are looking likely to be missed (Red). The level of detail in this report should be proportionate to the size and importance of the delegated responsibility.

If your team reports that a milestone is Amber, this frees you to discuss the problems, coach people towards solutions if appropriate, or maybe use some of your authority to secure access to the help that is needed. There is no lack of trust, you have not taken responsibility away from the team and yet you are fully in control of the situation.

The power of the RAG report is not in its power to control, but in the fact that it forces everyone to agree up front what is to be achieved and by when. If people are not able to deliver, for whatever reason, you have the chance to act. That may mean to remove the responsibility, change the parameters, or add someone else to the team to improve the chances of success. Providing this is done clearly as a thought out solution to an identified problem, then it does not imply lack of trust, it shows that you are taking appropriate managerial action in response to a situation brought to your attention by the team or individual holding the responsibility.

The RAG report will at least help you sleep at night, though perhaps not if every item on it has reached the Red stage. Should this happen (despite your best efforts at support) your team are not able to deliver what has been delegated. So, what should you learn from the situation? Well perhaps first establish whether it was possible to deliver and what were the main causes of failure. Assuming that there were no extreme circumstances beyond control affecting the project, you need to reflect on your decision. The decision to delegate the responsibility was yours and not theirs, therefore if it turned out to be the wrong decision, it was your mistake and not theirs.

  • Could you have foreseen the failure?
  • Did the team lack the skill?
  • Did you fail to keep control?
  • Did you underestimate the scale of the Challenge? 
  • What could you do differently next time to have a better chance of success? 

Reflective conversations

You then need to have a reflective conversation with the team or individual to whom you delegated the responsibility. At what point did they realise that it wasnt going to be a success, what could they have done differently, how could you have supported them more. Note that none of these questions imply lack of trust, they are simply part of what is known as reflective learning the learning that comes from reflecting on a situation in depth and from several angles.

Handled well, such a process will build higher levels of trust, rather than leave people feeling blamed for failure. It will encourage you to delegate in future and help you be more effective in so doing.

If we only ever delegate low level responsibility and routine tasks, then our people will lack chances to develop, and we are unlikely to be able to make significant improvement or change in our work. We will simply tread water.