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Why effective delegation is the key to managerial success

Posted by vince
Published on 22 March 2019

There are many supervisors, team leaders, managers and bosses in general who find delegation difficult and sometimes impossible. Or they delegate and then micro-manage the delegated project so that whoever tasked with the work is destined to fail.

One of the first and most important lessons that anyone with direct reports tends to learn is that effective delegation is a key to managerial success. No manager can - or should even try to - do everything on their own because a) it’s impossible and b) the manager will fail as will the work. However, delegation is about more than just giving out unwanted or unpleasant tasks. There is a great deal of thought and skill involved in delegation including understanding when it’s appropriate and to whom.  

There’s no one right way (as is the case with most aspects of running a successful organisation), but there are some accepted rules of delegation. The first and most important step towards delegating any task is to ensure that there are the right people in place to whom you can delegate. If you can’t trust the people available to you to handle a task on their own, then you need different or new people. Unless the task is so unusual - and on the assumption that you’re delegating work that should fit within your (and your team’s) area of responsibility - then there shouldn’t be an issue of ability to deliver. When it comes to mastering delegation, nothing makes the process easier than knowing there are trustworthy individuals to handle the responsibility. All this is very easy to write and hard to do but, if you’re in any supervisory capacity, then you’re there to sort things like this out - and you possibly have others in the organisation who can help and advise you. Getting wrong people out and new ones in of course isn’t a five minutes job particularly with legislation and HR processes as they are So, you may need to insist that the current members of your team are retrained or trained in new skills. Again, that’s not a quick fix either. However – and this is the point – there’s no point in delegating something to someone whom you know won’t be able to deliver it. There’s also the unpleasant issue of blame; many managers don’t consider delegation an issue and will always blame the worker who is unable to deliver. Some managers put up with the status quo simply because that’s the hand of cards dealt and they will accept that they have ‘poor’ staff. These ‘poor’ staff will find themselves as the recipient of harsh words and probably more. That’s of no use to anyone least of all the organisation.

Many tasks need delegation, and some do not. Managers need to be careful about the tasks that they delegate, and they must ensure that they are focusing not just on the tasks that they want to do, but the ones that they need to do and that will use their time and their skills in the best possible way.

That leaves other projects to delegate. You have to know that the person to whom you’re delegating understands the brief (and that doesn’t happen so often) and also fully understands the checking process - and the clear objectives. Clear and concise instructions should always come with an assignment and a delegated assignment without proper instructions (and understood instructions) is doomed. Those who are not clear about managerial expectations can’t hope to get the initial and continued guidance they need. If you’re eventually frustrated and unhappy with the entire situation because the project is not going the right way, you can be reasonably sure that part of the problem was in the briefing and detail of expectation. That’s you. Blame is an easy dustbin into which to fall, and it’s essential that you don’t. If you delegate, then you still have accountability, and you’ll need to look at yourself just as much as the person to whom you’ve delegated.

It's worth reiterating an important point. When delegating any task, you must focus on what you want as an absolute outcome and less on the path that the individual takes to reach this outcome. Every person is going to approach any task in a slightly different way. A different path to the same outcome isn’t a bad thing. When it comes to effective and efficient delegation, you need to expect that your delegated member of staff is going to (and probably should) take his/her approach to complete it and you’ll need to trust that the outcome is going to be what they want – just as much as what you want. If you consider companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and many others including those in the creative sectors (but not only), they all operate this approach of allowing people to manage a delegated project in their way and the results are by and large creative and productive. Of course, this approach would not be suitable where there is a legal or expressly prescribed methodology involved such as the science, pharma and engineering sectors. Similarly, health and safety demands for a certain process must come first.

For delegation to work properly, quality communication is key. It’s often overlooked and it’s the main cause of all corporate failure. No team member wants to feel abandoned and unsupported with a task given by his/her boss. Receiving an occasional, “How’s it going?” in the lift is also unacceptable. Continual (but not overbearing or micro) support can make the entire delegation process go smoothly. Clear and concise communication (verbal as well as written) and precise answers to questions are key. Individuals should feel as though they can expect and receive, agreed and regular communication from their manager. But that’s a two-way street, and everyone involved in a delegated task must know the rules of communication. And it’s down to you as a manager to set those rules. Once set you can expect compliance. Also, it’s important that a wider group of people – may be the whole organisation (as appropriate obviously) – understands the project, what’s happening and who’s doing what, when and why.

Feedback is part of good communication too of course. Make sure to contribute both positive and (constructive) negative feedback, so the delegated person or people will understand what’s tasks well and where/how they need to improve. Do not leave this to the ‘end’. Then it’s too late. Exceptional performance is more likely to continue if it's recognised and rewarded. It’s important to follow through when someone performs particularly well and, you can be generous with whatever is appropriate within your organisation (could be a bonus or promotion). Forget this at your peril. If the work veers big time away from your communicated guidelines and, despite assistance, then take decisive corrective action. Don’t wait too long either. You're not doing anyone any favours by stepping back entirely when things are clearly going drastically wrong. End the assignment or change the team and move on. Managing that may need sensitivity, depending of course on the reason for non-delivery.

Earlier we mentioned micro-management, a common problem and extremely annoying. It’s what happens if you delegate something and then insist that the task be delivered in the way you would do it, with checking every day and sometimes more frequently. Delegating is all about helping managers like you save time by having other capable people or teams take over other responsibilities. Unfortunately, many managers struggle with the idea of letting go when delegating and spend just as much time looking over the shoulder of their team members as they would if they were doing the project themselves. That will result in disaster, a waste of everyone’s time and probably a resignation or two. Possibly project failure as well. You should always be looking for ways that can strengthen your team and make it a better and more successful unit. Not the reverse.

Fear is a driver in the world of delegated tasks. Fear can be something that sits within the person to whom you’ve delegated the task. He or she may not mention it (why would they?), but you have to know if they are afraid of failure or simply unsure whether they have the skills to deliver. You need to know. Of course, the world is the world, not all delegation tasks are going to go smoothly. Some people may rise to the occasion and exceed expectations, while others may fall short. Successful managers know that these situations aren’t a reason to take back responsibility, but an opportunity to use the failure as a learning opportunity and a way to recognise where things went wrong and how they can be remedied in the future. But many hiccoughs are due to fear of failure and you, as a manager, will need to manage that. And there’s often a reticence in all of us to go into some ‘territories’ that are new or different.

So, sometimes delegation will mean that individuals to whom a task was given must step outside their comfort zone. Everyone has a comfort zone - we all do - and a lot of people, no matter what their role, hate stepping out of it. It’s cold, it’s scary, and it can mean failure. People do not want to get even close to failing. A very few like risk, but most don’t. (Of course, it’s often the risk takers who fail and then succeed, but that’s a separate topic). When delegating tasks, you as a manager need to be willing to possibly push your team members to step outside their comfort zone and see what they can do. Fear of failure is worth discussing with them too. It’s common. We all have it, so it shouldn’t be the big off-the-table topic that it is.

Any delegated task must be accompanied by a delegation of authority – that’s the power and sufficient resources to get the job done. Too much restriction will cause the result to be less than even adequate, and blame will become a regular part of everyone’s vocabulary. But, equally, there’s no huge value in being over-generous because that can lead to sloppy and expensive cul-de-sacs. Like any project, a delegated task should be costed out properly to include every likely aspect that will aid delivery. Authority may include giving the employee power to spend money, travel, seek assistance from others internally and externally or make decisions that are within the set ‘rules’. This authority has to be crystal clear from the outset so that it’s not under-stepped or abused. There will be little point if the person charged with a project keeps having to refer back to his or her boss each time a decision is made.

Managers sometimes view planning as a hindrance to getting work done, but planning to delegate is an investment in people and the organisation's culture. It's a good thing, not a bad thing. So, when assigning a task, consider the assignee’s demonstrated skill sets, mindset, interest in the task and current workload. Know his or her record of success on similar assignments - how they work with others, when they operate best and how well they deliver under pressure. Explain both the goals of the task, the reason for it in the greater scheme of things and the standards that will be used to measure results. Make sure the goals are specific, attainable, relevant and measurable.

Delegation is of course not just about finding ways to dump your responsibilities onto others’ shoulders. That route demonstrates poor management and will probably lead to your downfall let alone your team’s. Keep considering the benefits of doing things well because the results can be terrific. One research study showed that 53% of business owners believe that they can grow their business by more than 20% if they only delegate 10% of their workload to someone else. That's terrific.

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