“Don’t I have to do that? Am I shirking my responsibilities as a manager if I give that to someone else?”
These questions were asked by one of my clients recently during a coaching session. She is a young manager only six months into her new role and while performing well, she’s struggling with prioritising and balancing her workload.
Like many leaders and managers I have worked with, young and more experienced alike, she knows she should delegate but when it comes down to the crunch, she struggles. Instead she simply puts her head down, works harder and longer to get more done. (Interestingly this has coincided with some health issues. While I can’t definitively say they were caused by the stress of work, the timing of their onset seems more than coincidental.)
Most leaders and managers understand the principle of delegation. They are able to cite the definition and explain why and when it should be done. They may probably even preach its virtue to their team. When it comes to the practice of delegation however, many struggle.
I purposed myself to never do what others could or would do, when there is so much in the world that others could not or would not do. – Dawson Trumpman
So why don’t leaders and managers delegate?
The usual responses I get when asking this question can be summarised by the statement, “Other managers I know do these tasks, the manager before me did these tasks, therefore if I am going to be a manager, I must do these tasks. This is what managers do. This is what makes me a manager.”
Leaders and managers struggle to delegate because their mindset is characterised by three main concerns.
- They have failed to fully understand the role of a manager. Their role is to manage tasks and workflow in order to facilitate the performance of their team. Their primary responsibility is performance not task completion. They may be responsible for ensuring tasks get done, but that doesn’t mean they have to complete these tasks themselves.
- Insecurity. Many young managers and leaders hold on to ‘management tasks’ because they fear that someone else might do a better job than them. If this happens they fear both their boss and their team will think less of them as a leader. Thus they feel their position as a leader may be threatened.
- They don’t trust their team. Many managers I have coached have struggled to delegate for this reason. In these cases, the main reason they don’t trust their team is because the team is never given the opportunity to earn the manager’s trust. Whether this is due to a past failure by a team member or the insecurity of the manager, the team will never fulfil its potential and develop into a high performing collective without this trust.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of identity. Once a leader grasps a true understanding of their identity in their role, letting go is all about security in that identity as a leader and trust in your team. This requires a mindset shift.
So how to do managers and leaders make the necessary mindset shift that allows delegation to become a regular practice? I recommend considering the following three questions.
1. What are the tasks that only I can do?
While I advocate delegating as many tasks as possible, there are some tasks that only the manager can do. These will vary dependant on the workplace however may include presentations to organisational hierarchy, some meetings and mentoring team members. Yet even these can often be delegated for a specific purpose – such as the professional development of team members. It may be difficult for a leader to delegate development of department strategy or performance reviews for staff however.
Teams benefit most when their leader focuses their energy on the tasks that only they can do. This is primarily because it is these tasks that enable the team to focus their efforts on execution and increase collective performance.
I delegate many tasks I enjoy doing because someone else can do them nearly as well as I do… There are things that only I can do. On them I focus. – John Maxwell
2. Where is the greatest return on investment for my time?
This question strikes at the heart of prioritisation. To reference Stephen Covey, it’s about making sure the most important things remain the most important things. For those of you who are familiar with and use Covey’s Important vs Urgent matrix, its about making sure our first priority is the Important tasks. Anything that falls into the Urgent but Not Important box is ripe for delegation.
I once sought counsel from a friend of mine who had tremendous capacity and carried a considerable number of portfolios and responsibility. When asked how he handles this workload, he said he asked himself one question daily. “What can I do today that will give me more time in six weeks?”
The answer to this question usually this involves an investment in people. With this in mind one might ask, “What do I want to be able to delegate and who can I train/coach/mentor to be able to do that task?” Once they are up to speed, that’s one more task off your to do list freeing up more time for you to focus on what is important. It may take time you think you don’t have today, but that investment will return a multiple of time in the future.
3. What are the benefits for my people?
When we think about the benefits of delegation, usually we consider those for the one who delegates. Rarely do people consider the benefits for those who are delegated to. In reality however, it maybe that it is these individuals and the team overall who reap the greatest reward.
It shows trust and belief in your team. By delegating you are communicating a message, I trust you enough to give you this task. This trust not only engenders your staff’s trust in you as a leader but also makes them feel valued.
Provides experience of operating at a higher level. While this has a number of benefits, primarily this provides confidence in their ability to perform at their level. It also informs them of where they may need to develop in order to get to the next level. It may also provide your team members with an understanding of the pressures you deal with in your leadership role.
Provides exposure to more strategic considerations. Staff generally only focus on the concerns that effect their immediate job. Operating at a higher level exposes them to considerations that relate to the broader organisational picture. They begin to understand the influences and context of your decisions as a leader as well as the broader impacts of their behaviour. This leads to them making more informed decisions in their role.
Practice at back briefing their boss. The higher up the organisation the more individuals are required to back brief their boss about the workings of the team. When you delegate to your staff, there is an inherent requirement for them to back brief you as their manager at the end of the task. This provides them an opportunity to practice a skill they will use throughout the rest of their careers.
Opportunities to develop skill sets. When we delegate tasks to our team that are new or not part of their usual work, we provide the opportunity to develop additional skill sets. Tasking one of your team to present to organisational leadership on a particular task may develop their presentation skills and confidence.
Opportunity to develop relationships within the organisation. Delegating meetings and representational duties is one area few managers consider doing. In addition to the other benefits listed, this also allows your staff to develop their relational networks within the organisation and its stakeholders. This enhances cross-organisational communication and increases the organisational resources your team may be able to draw on in the future.
It’s a form of practical succession planning. Delegation develops your team, allowing them to be able to handle many of the tasks that come across your desk as a leader. Delegation prepares individuals for progression within the organisation. Ideally there would be one or two people on your team who should be able to step into your role if you were to be promoted at short notice. I recently moved on from a leadership position and the decision to invite someone to replace me was a hard one. It was hard because I had five people who were all more than capable of fulfilling my role. That’s a good problem to have!
Once we have answered these three questions, one must ask regarding delegation, ‘Who loses?’ As a leader you get more time while simultaneously developing your staff. The members of your team reap the benefits of development and see how this important leadership behaviour is role modelled. The benefits of this are particularly prevalent when your team are in a position to delegate to their team as well.
One thing managers and leaders must remember when they begin delegating, is the principle that you can only delegate tasks not responsibility. Ultimately if you are in a position to delegate, you will still be held responsible for performance of your team or department. You may need to consider what needs to be put in place to mitigate risk. Strategies such as clearly defining outcomes and processes, check points and updates may be required. The more experienced your staff become with handling delegated tasks, the less required these strategies will be.
You will notice I have used the terms manager and leader interchangeably throughout this article. That is intentional. While I acknowledge the difference between the role of a manager and a leader, the art of delegation is key to the effectiveness of both roles.
Delegate to Elevate
As Geno Wickman says, “We must delegate in order to elevate.” When we delegate, we elevate our focus and attention to the important tasks. We elevate our perspective to focus on overall performance rather than get bogged down in the tyranny of task. We provide the opportunity for individuals to step up to the plate and elevate their own performance. When multiple individuals do, we elevate the performance of an entire team, thereby influencing organisational performance.
When leaders answer these three questions, something shifts in their mindset.
The only question left to ask is, “What shall I delegate today?”
I love to hear your experiences with delegation. Do you struggle to delegate at work? What is for you that makes delegation hard? How have you found any strategies to make delegating easier? Please share in the comments below.