By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD
Many years ago, as a first-time manager, I was green with much to learn. Management looked easy from the outside. I assured myself that, when given the opportunity to lead, I’d never make the same blunders I witnessed.
Yes, I would direct my future staff with enlightenment, never forgetting the negative examples I witnessed over the years. Quite simply, I pledged to do a better job as a manager. It was a commendable yet lofty goal; one I found much easier to say than do.
One day I walked down the hall with my boss, a man I respected, yet feared; loved, but occasionally detested. Publicly I defended him, yet privately his inexplicable demands and thoughtless pronouncements confounded me. He was the source of countless frustrations while offering little praise or encouragement. He had just given me yet one more assignment, a task I didn’t have time for.
I protested, insisting I already had too much on my plate. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Just delegate it.” I mentally reviewed the capabilities of my charges. Although a group of able young technologists, none were ready for a project of this magnitude or to meet my boss’s high standards.
“But there is no one I can delegate it to.”
“Do you want to know the secret of delegation?” There was a twinkle in his eye.
I moved closer, expecting the secret of managerial nirvana. I nodded.
“It’s simple. Just look for your busiest guy and give the project to him!”
I was dumbfounded at his “insight.” I said nothing, and he continued.
“You see, the busiest guy is the guy who gets things done; that’s always who you want to delegate to.”
Seething, I kept quiet. I flashed a comprehending look, a respectful nod, and a faint smile. His dissemination of knowledge now complete, he strode down the hallway to his next victim, while I ducted into my office and closed the door.
His words angered me on multiple levels. First, I had yet another project to do. Second, his advice was illogical and unfair; delegating to the busiest employee would only serve to make him or her more busy, setting them up to be the leading candidate for the next project. Lastly, I realized that as the busiest of those under his command, I was his “go to guy.”
There had to be a better way. It took a while, some research, and lots of trial and error, but I eventually understood the art of delegating. Delegation is something all managers need to do. Unfortunately it’s often hard. Many who attempt it are unhappy with the results, often accepting sub-par outcomes or giving up. Sadly, successful delegation requires an initial investment of time, often more time than for you to do the work yourself.
If that’s the case, why bother? Quite simply because once you teach your employees how to receive and complete delegated tasks, you can realize a huge savings of time as you empower them, allowing them to grow as individuals and to contribute to your organization’s success. As such, delegation is well worth the extra effort to do it right. A five-step procedure paves the way to successful delegation.
1) Select the Right People: A person who has proven themselves in small things can handle more responsibilities and enjoy greater latitude. However, until they prove their ability to effectively handle assignments, the scope of their tasks must remain small. For example, if they can’t arrive at work on time, is there any reason to assume they can accomplish something more challenging?
To give unproven employees a chance to substantiate themselves, start with small assignments such as sorting mail, stuffing envelopes, making copies, or simply arriving to work on time. Next, they can graduate to processing UPS shipments or placing an office supply order (you select the items and quantities, they call it in).
Each time they successfully complete a delegated assignment, reward them with additional responsibilities; each time they fail to complete a task, confront them. All employees should be trained to handle basic delegated projects. If they can’t, why are you still employing them. Some employees will advance to assignments of medium difficulty, while a few superstars can work independently. Therefore, match the task to the employee.
2) Ensure They Have the Proper Tools and Knowledge to Do the Job: If the work requires a computer, is one available? If it requires a program, do they know how to use it? Consider whether they have the background knowledge to complete the task. It’s easy to oversimplify a project or assume key details are common knowledge. Often, an employee needs instruction or training before they can successfully complete an assignment. Not only must you ensure you’ve given them this information but also to provide it in the ideal format for them. Some people learn best in written form, others need a demonstration, and some need to do it; occasionally a combination is appropriate. Regardless, asking an employee to start a project without the proper resources is setting them up to fail.
3) Give Them a Clear Timetable: Saying a project is “urgent” means different things to different people. Saying “when you have time” is open to misinterpretation. When giving a deadline, you cannot be too specific. Examples include, “I require your written overview on my desk every Monday by 5 p.m.,” or “I need your preliminary work by the end of the day on Thursday, the twelfth.”
4) Hold Them Accountable: Follow-up must be consistent and expected; let them know you’ll check on their progress. Assure them you’re available for questions. If they do unsatisfactory work or miss a deadline, there must be a reaction. This could be merely asking them to explain what happened. Perhaps, despite your best efforts, instructions were incomplete or training was insufficient; then shoulder the blame and correct the oversight. Sometimes, managers need to communicate the ramifications, such as, “Because you did not complete this on time, we lost the client, which will cost us X hundred dollars.” If you correctly follow step one, only in rare cases will disciplinary action be needed.
5) As They Prove Themselves in Small Things, Give Them Bigger Assignments: Now you can begin to phase out of the “accountability” step. Yes, accountability is still required, but it gradually becomes ancillary to delegation, instead of integral.
If you consistently follow these steps, all employees will become better at responding to delegation; some employees will even advance to the point of self-determination, where they take the initiative to do what needs to be done. That is delegation at its finest.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is publisher, editor, author, and blogger with 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for tips and insights.