Nutshell: The power of letting go: why delegation is a key to leadership success

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
04 Feb 2021

04 Feb 2021 • by Future Talent Learning

Learning to let go and delegate effectively is a win-win for ourselves and our people, not only freeing up our time but also offering development opportunities for others.

Here’s a question for us leaders. If we unexpectedly had to take a week off work, would our key initiatives and priorities keep moving forward in our absence – or would they grind to a halt?

It’s a question posed by writer and consultant, Jesse Sostrin, as he ponders the importance of one of the most important leadership challenges of all: how to delegate appropriately and well. If, says Sostrin, we answer no or are unsure about that unscheduled time off, then we may need to re-think our approach.

We know, of course, what delegation is. We probably also understand how important it is for leaders. But that doesn’t mean that it’s plain sailing. In fact, it often remains an underused and underdeveloped leadership skill, easy to misunderstand, to get wrong or even avoid completely.

That, though, can be a problem. One of the fundamentals of stepping up into management or leadership is the need to get things done through our colleagues. This shift from ‘doing’ to ‘leading’ can be hard; we may know it’s the right thing to do, but, in the heat of the average workplace, having the emotional intelligence to delegate rather than do, trusting our colleagues with tasks we’ve probably learned to do well or more effectively ourselves, is often a matter of perseverance and practice.

The hard fact is that, when we step up into leadership and broaden the range of our responsibilities, it’s simply not possible – or desirable - for us to do everything ourselves. That way, many have found to their cost, leads to bottlenecks or even to burnout. Nor is delegation important for just managing our own workload, important though that it is. The true power of delegation goes beyond making our own lives easier and more manageable.

Done well, it’s an incredibly effective way to develop our teams, to provide opportunities for learning, to build capability for individuals, teams and our organisations as a whole. And providing these opportunities for autonomy, for building mastery, are an important route to motivation and engagement. Involving others also mitigates against group-think and bias, leading to better, more balanced decision-making – and even more innovation.

Powerful stuff. But if delegation is so powerful, why do so many of us find it so hard to do?

As with so much of leadership, delegation requires us to take a long hard look at ourselves and our biases, to trust in others and to use our judgement about when and how to let go. We often have more leeway than we realise when we weigh up the amount of control we exert against the level of freedom (that autonomy) we feel we can afford people. It’s tempting, especially if we’re fairly new to leadership, to tip the scales in favour of control, to micromanage rather than to trust and let go. We need to guard against that if we are to properly enable and empower. Delegation may take effort, skill and time – it needs us to communicate, coach and give feedback along the way – but, as we’ve seen, the rewards are many.

To delegate effectively, we need to understand the things that can get in the way and what our own approach or style may be. Working from that base, we can learn to adapt that approach as necessary, and hone our practice for deciding which tasks to delegate, to whom, when and how. American author, John C Maxwell, reminded us that “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.” Here’s how.

Barriers to delegation

If we were to ask ourselves, honestly, why we don’t delegate more, we’d probably find that our answers are far from unique. There are some very common barriers and biases that can get in the way.

It’s easier/quicker to do it myself
This may be more or less true, but it’s not really the point.

Sostrin reminds that, short-term, we may be able to “get up earlier, stay later, and out-work” the demands we face. But the “inverse equation of shrinking resources and increasing demands” will eventually catch up with us. At that point, whether and how (or not) we involve other people will impact our effectiveness – and that of our teams. We can either plough on with diminishing returns, or make sensible judgements about involving others.

When we hang on to tasks we don’t need to, we’re confusing, according to Sostrin, “being involved with being essential”. Our involvement doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to do everything ourselves. If we can learn how to “activate” others around us, then we can become ancillary rather than essential to success, inspiring and enabling others in the process.  

Research by a team led by psychologists, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Rober Cialdini, has also identified two important biases that might also cloud our judgement:

  • a faith in supervision effect, by which leaders tend to see work performed under supervision as better than work conducted independently, and
  • self-enhancement bias, a tendency to evaluate work more favourably if we’re involved directly in its creation.

As with other biases, we might be unaware that we’re falling foul of them. But they’re likely to be part of the picture, so acknowledging and counter-acting them can be an important precursor to accepting that we can’t do everything ourselves. Instead, we need to work on feeling more confident and comfortable with giving others the opportunity to step up and show what they can do.

I don’t have time to delegate

Another common barrier to delegation is that it can take longer to teach someone else how to do a task than to do it ourselves. That may be true the first time we delegate something, or when the person we’re delegating to is less experienced (of which more below). But, over time, this initial investment will pay dividends in two ways.

First, as the person completing the delegated task becomes more experienced, our involvement will decrease, freeing us up to focus on other crucial leadership tasks. In fact, delegation is one of the four options identified by one of the most famous time management models of all time, The Eisenhower Matrix, that asks us to plot how we use our time against task urgency and importance. If tasks are urgent, but not important, the model exhorts us to delegate to free up the time we need for things that really require our attention.

In addition, delegation will mean that the person carrying out the task has learnt new skills and developed confidence that are likely to be valuable elsewhere.

Delegation certainly takes time if done well, but we need to practice if we’re to make the most of it. Making the time for it is simply part of the deal.

But I really enjoy doing this…

One of the reasons we progress at work is because we enjoy doing what we’re doing, which helps us to keep improving and growing. When we take on new responsibilities, especially at leadership level, we may face the need to delegate tasks that we love doing, but can be equally well done by someone else.

We have to keep asking ourselves: how and where can I add most value? If that means ditching lower-value tasks for the greater good, even if we enjoy filling in that spreadsheet or going to those catch-up meetings, we have to bite the bullet and let go.

I can’t give my people anything more – they’re flat out already

For some, delegating tasks can feel a bit like exploitation or weakness, passing work down the line rather than rolling up our sleeves and doing it ourselves.

But we need to re-frame our thinking to see that delegation is a sign of strength, not weakness.

If we have serious resource issues in our teams, that’s different; they’ll need to be addressed if we’re to have any hope of motivating our people. But we need to interrogate carefully our own thinking as well as any push-back from team-members who are reluctant to take on more. Avoiding delegation is rarely a long-term solution. Re-framing delegation as a development opportunity can help both parties to get on board.

Remember, too, that delegation is still a shared task; it’s not about “passing the buck”. We will still be involved, just not exclusively. And whatever level of control we retain (or not), we’re still, as leaders, accountable for outcomes.

What’s my delegation style?

Another reason why delegation can be so tricky is because it often means making fine judgements about when and what to delegate and to whom. Just like leadership more generally, whether or not we delegate, and the amount of involvement or control we retain, will depend on the situation we find ourselves in and the people involved – and that means being aware of which style we might adopt and when.

It's a conundrum encapsulated in a leadership model first explored in a classic Harvard Business Review article by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt. Their continuum of leadership behaviour speaks to the fact that we may feel torn between exercising “strong”, (more directive or autocratic) leadership, and something that’s more “permissive” (or democratic).  We may flip-flop between knowing that we should involve others and the feeling that our experience makes us best place to decide and act on our own.

These two extremes are not, though, mutually exclusive. As we delegate more, we adopt a more democratic leadership style and give team members more freedom to act autonomously. Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s  styles exist on a continuum running from more directive to less, with staging points along the way.

 

As with other leadership styles models, there are times when each of the styles will be more or less effective. The continuum gives us a framework to consider which approach might work best depending on three key factors:

  • The experience and competence of team members: do they have the knowledge, skills and experience to make decisions and act more autonomously?
  • The situation we’re facing:  Is there enough time to be more permissive? What are the risks involved?
  • Our own attitudes:  Are we willing to be accountable for our team’s decision or actions? Are we able to delegate tasks and decisions effectively?

These three factors are interrelated and also depend on wider cultures within our organisations and beyond. A consistently autocratic approach, for example, might well clash with wider cultures of respect and learning, and may even threaten client or customer relationships.

The seven styles are often shown with the following short-hands to describe each of the behaviours:  

Tells: Leaders make decisions and expect their teams to follow; teams have very little input. This can work when a team is inexperienced and needs more support or in a crisis situation. But, used consistently, it can lead to frustration and lack of trust.

Sells: Leaders make the decisions, but explain why to look for team buy-in. The decision won’t change, but the team is allowed to makes its opinions and feelings known.

Suggests: Leaders make the decision, explain why and then ask for questions. Although the decision is already made, this style helps the team understand why. Tannenbaum and Schmidt believe that giving team members the opportunity to discuss what’s happening makes them feel more engaged with it and more likely to feel positive about it. It also helps us to test group capabilities.

Consults: Leaders propose a course of action and invite input and discussion to test that proposal. The team can influence and change the final outcome. It’s a way for leaders to acknowledge and trust that team members have valuable insights, and to involve them actively in what’s going on. It’s a style that supports team-building and motivation.

Joins: Leaders present a problem or task and asks the team for suggestions and options. They may make the final decision, but the process to arrive at it is collaborative. The style works well with teams that have specific knowledge or expertise.

Delegates: Leaders outline the problem or task, provide the appropriate parameters and allow the team to find solutions and make a final decision. They are still accountable for outcomes and control any risks involved by setting clear expectations and criteria. Delegation requires high levels of trust and the right levels of support and resources to help the team to deliver.

Abdicates: Leaders ask the team to define the problem or task, develop options and make a decision. The team is free to do what's necessary provided that they work within agreed team and organisational parameters. While this may be highest level of freedom a leader can give a team on the continuum, the leader is still accountable, so we will need to be sure that the team has the capability to deliver.

In essence, the continuum's styles broadly correspond to a team's level of development: as trust and competency (including our own) develop, team members are likely to want to operate more autonomously, and we need to feel more comfortable about letting them do so. It also reinforces the key point that delegation is not about “passing the buck”; the accountability stays with us.

The continuum can help us make those judgements about control vs autonomy, but, as well as assessing the abilities of our people and the situation we’re facing, we also need to be aware of our own attitudes and how they might affect our inclination to delegate – and to re-set our thinking as needed.

How to delegate

Our own personal barriers to delegation are not the only things that can get in the way. Even when we decide to delegate, there are also a whole host of process problems that can derail us. We may fail to explain properly what we want or to set clear expectations; we might set unrealistic deadlines; we might allocate a task to the wrong person – and then take the task back at the first sign of less than perfect performance; we might fail to acknowledge a delegated task well done or to review how it’s gone. The permutations are manifold, and the result inevitably the same: frustration on our part and demoralisation and disengagement on the other.

That’s why we need to know how to delegate, focussing on the why (purpose); when (timing); what (task); the who and the how. The eagle-eyed reader will have spotted just how far along the Tannenbaum-Schmidt continuum the delegation style sits. Good delegation is not about simply handing over a task. We need to think carefully about execution, taking the time to evaluate the delegation in the first place, assess who might have the skills, aptitude and bandwidth to take something on, brief them properly and then evaluate how it’s gone so that both sides can learn for the future.

It can help to see delegation as a process with a series of steps we can use like a checklist to help develop our practice:

Start with purpose
Sostrin reminds us that, if we’re not clear about why we’re delegating, then it’s be hard to explain that to others. We need to think about the big picture and what’s at stake. What do we want to achieve? Is it about freeing up our own time? Are we providing a development opportunity for a team member? Are we looking to re-allocate tasks across a group? Taking this first important step will set the right tone for what we want to delegate and to whom, and make the briefing stage easier when we get there.

Identify tasks
Focussing on purpose will already have given us a good idea of what we want to delegate, but it’s a good idea to check this initial thinking. When identifying tasks, we need to remember that key question about where and how we can add most value. As we’ve seen, we may even have to pass on tasks we enjoy doing if it will free us up for tasks only we can do.  

Career strategist, Jenny Blake, has developed a useful checklist to help us overcome our tendency to “hoard and bottleneck”. She encourages us to conduct an audit using six Ts to help us decided what we can and should delegate:

Tiny: It might seem easier just to get on with small things like organising meetings or booking a flight. They might seem inconsequential but, together, they can soak up a lot of time. If we can identify someone else – either internally or externally – to do them for us, it’ll help to keep us in full flow without being distracted.

Tedious: Tasks that are relatively straightforward and simple – like updating that spreadsheet – are probably not the best use of our time.

Time-consuming: More complex tasks that take up a lot of time might not need our direct involvement at every stage. So let others do the heavy lifting on that research project, and we can step back in when decisions need to be made and next steps agreed.

Teachable: Even quite complex tasks can usually be broken down into sub-tasks and even systematised or made into a process than can be taught to others.

Terrible at: We can’t be good at everything and one of the joys of teamworking is that there will be others who can compensate for our “allowable weaknesses”. So, we shouldn’t feel bad about delegating preparation for that presentation to someone who has a better grasp of PowerPoint.

Time sensitive: Tasks that are time-sensitive might compete with other priorities. If we delegate some of them, they can be done concurrently.

As a guide, Blake has also created a list of things she herself has delegated recently using her six T techniques.

There may be times where we need to delegate basic admin or other straightforward tasks, but, where we can, we should aim to delegate interesting work too. Think about what our team needs to achieve as a whole, and how that might break down into more or less interesting tasks that can be shared out fairly.

It’s also good practice to delegate whole tasks or projects rather than disjointed parts. For example, if we need to find a new supplier, consider delegating the whole process from research through to shortlisting and involvement in the decision, rather than having someone dip in and out at different stages. As well as making briefing more straightforward, it will give people a sense of ownership and motivating levels of agency and autonomy.

Find the right person

As we’ve already seen, a key element of delegation that delivers the right outcomes is to match the tasks to be delegated with people with the right skills, experience, strengths and commitment. When time is tight, we might want to go with the option that will deliver the best outcome in the (limited) time available. Or, if the risk associated with a project is high, we might want to pick a known quantity.

But delegation is also about providing development opportunities. The right levels of stretch and challenge will help people to learn new skills, improve their performance – and also build team capability. This might be more time-consuming for us but, as we’ve seen, it can be an investment worth making. For example, asking a team member who tends not to contribute in meetings to chair the next team meeting can (with the right support) help that person to develop more confidence in group discussions.

People will also need the time and space to be able to take the task on, which might involve some negotiation with them early on.

For coach, Sabina Nawaz, delegation often has to come with coaching built in. She has developed her delegation dial to “evaluate employee skills and guide tasks while still empowering the employee to be responsible for the final deliverable.”

We first need to find out how much someone already knows about the task at hand. Then we need to adopt a style of delegation that – with a nod to Tannenbaum and Schmidt – matches that person’s competence level. With a less experienced colleague, that might involve having them shadow and observe us while we do something ourselves (Do) or giving them precise instructions (Tell). In the middle, it’s all about the “why”, reinforcing context and shared ownership (Teach). At the other end of the dial, we might prompt someone to think about what they’ve learnt to reinforce their autonomy (Ask) or simply be in the slips in case we’re needed (Support).

 

Brief clearly

If we are not to set people up to fail, we need to brief them properly, set clear objectives for the delegated work, the timescales involved, the outcomes expected and any boundaries that need to be respected.

For simple, straightforward tasks, this could be a matter of sending an email or having a quick chat. For anything more complex, we might want to have a dedicated briefing meeting. Sostrin believes this is not just a matter of delivering a brief, but of making sure it’s been received and understood, giving the person we’re delegating to the opportunity to ask questions, clarify and agree with us what needs to happen and when. The more context we can give about why the task is being delegated and why it’s important, the better the chance of success.

The style of briefing we use is also important. Bestselling author, Stephen Covey, suggested that delegation should be “focused on results instead of methods.” Agree those objectives, but don’t get hung up on the detail of how the work is to be done. Be on hand for support, and certainly provide any training or additional resources that may be needed, but avoid giving step-by-step details about how the work should be done. Let people tackle things their own way.

As long as we get the result we need, tasks don’t have to be done our way. With the outcomes and ground rules established, new perspectives can only be a positive. The US General, George S Patton, said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” He’s right.

Responsibility and authority

Most of us will have been in a situation where we’ve been tasked to do something, but didn’t have the authority to see it through without constantly having to refer decisions up the line. This lack of empowerment is not a recipe for effective delegation or motivation. It also means that we may end up being more involved than we want or should be. 

When we delegate, we need to be clear not only about the responsibilities we’re passing on (what we want someone to do), but also the level of authority that person has to get it done (the ability to do something without first getting permission from someone else).

Ideally, we want to foster cultures where our people feel able to make decisions or act, knowing when to ask questions or check in with us, but having as much autonomy as possible once we’ve established the right parameters.

Some organisations have their own schedules or schemes of delegation for certain tasks. For example, it’s common to establish who can authorise payments to suppliers up to certain levels. But it’s a principle that can be extended to all delegated tasks or decisions. The simple DRAG model can help leaders to be clear about the levels of authority team members can deploy for various tasks. It also helps leaders with their comfort levels around letting go, and to hold the line where they need to keep hold of tasks for themselves, for example, something that might involve confidential information.

 

The four quadrants of the model each suggest a different authority level. Some things are simply off limits (Don’t go there); others have become a routine part of a person’s job (Go for it). In between are the more finessed options ofRecommend, then act and Act, then advise. Leaders can use the model to balance control vs autonomy and offer clarity about expectations.

Check in and review

While we do need to let go and avoid micromanaging, we also need to agree some protocols for checking in to make sure the delegated task remains on track, both in terms of quality and schedule.

Balancing the right level of support (so that people don’t feel abandoned) while keeping as hands-off as possible (to let them get on with things) can be a tricky balancing act. We should resist the temptation to check in too often or to intervene unless absolutely necessary; instead, we should encourage people to come to us if they have queries or concerns.

For larger tasks, agreeing times for review or staging points can be part of the briefing process. It’s sensible to review how things are going at regular intervals rather than leaving everything until right before the deadline. Reviews don’t always have to be big set-piece meetings, but might also include quick e-mails to check on progress more informally. This all helps reviewing to be seen as a collaborative, constructive process designed to take stock and course correct as necessary.

Review against established goals and timelines to keep things focussed and objective. We may need to draw on our reserves of active listening, questioning and delivering constructive feedback. The aim is to create open, two-way dialogue about progress that engages the other person in the process. For example, through mutual exploration, we may decide that we need to revisit our original objectives or timelines.

Evaluate

Once a task is complete, we need to evaluate how it’s gone. This is a stage that’s often ignored but, if delegation is to be about learning and development (for both parties), then it’s an important part of the process.

When a task is completed, we need to show appreciation for the work that’s been done. We also need to identify things that have gone well or anything that has gone less well. This will provide a useful guide for people to improve.

 

Looking ahead to the twenty-first century, Bill Gates anticipated that the most successful leaders will be “those who empower others.” Mastering the art of delegation can help us achieve that aim in two ways. First, it gives us the time we need to lead rather than just do. And it also offers opportunities for us to coach, teach and otherwise develop the people for whom we’re responsible. If we can learn to let go and understand when and how to delegate, then we’re well on the way to making that empowerment a reality.

 

Test your understanding

  • Describe one psychological bias that might get in the way of our inclination to delegate.
  • The Tannenbaum-Schmidt leadership behaviour continuum encourages us to flex our style based on three factors. The experience of our people and the situation we find ourselves in are two. Identify the third.
  • Describe the six stages of the Future Talent Learning delegation process.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on the work you currently do and whether more tasks should be delegated to others. You could use our identifying lower-value tasks assessment or Jenny Blake’s six Ts audit to help you make your assessment.
  • Consider something you’ve delegated recently. To what extent did you follow the Future Talent Learning process identified above? What might you change in future?

 

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