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Delegate: why we should, why we don't and how we can.

The subject of the following comments has problems, and if this person does not change, he is going to continue having them in the future. Guaranteed.

"My manager needs to stick with delegated responsibilities -- versus interfere or reverse. Let his supervisors do their jobs. He doesn't realize that taking back delegated tasks creates conflict among employees as to who to follow."

"His (manager's) tendencies lean toward operations management, to be close to the firing line."

"Supervisors here need more authority as their skills and abilities increase. I've seen some positive response to this need, but I can still see my manager taking over the roles of his own supervisors. It conveys a certain lack of trust."

These statements, taken from interviews with supervisors in a manufacturing facility reveal the source of what could eventually be this manager's undoing: he is unskilled in the essential managerial art of delegation. And because he neither delegates enough, nor delegates effectively when he tries, his managerial style is a definite liability: to his company, because he is not effectively utilizing the human resources at his disposal; to his subordinates, because his style provokes their resentment and denies them opportunities to develop important skills and to "own" their work; and to himself, because he is always trying to personally do work that really should not be his to do. His ineffective delegation skills make him much less effective than he could be. If he does not improve them, chances are very good that his managerial "train" will either derail at some point or, at best, simply coast to a stand still somewhere between his present position and where he really wanted to be someday. Effective delegation is that important in determining a manager's success.

What is delegation?

Delegation is simpler on paper than in practice. For that reason, many managers and supervisors take it for granted as something that is easy to do well. Essentially, delegation is the activity in which authority is given to enable someone to accomplish a certain end or objective, but with the person who delegated the authority retaining final responsibility. It is this relationship between authority and responsibility that often complicates the translation from a good idea "in principle" to one "in practice." To many managers, there is something inherently scary about relinquishing the hands-on control that goes with delegating authority while still being held ultimately responsible for the outcome. It is not unlike a common concern underlying the fear of commercial air travel: someone else gets to drive the plane, but not just the pilot pays the price for an unsuccessful flight. Likewise, if we have to give the authority to another to complete an important project -- which in itself demands a leap of faith -- we often would either like to "copilot" the effort or at least have our own personal parachute at the ready.

Delegation is not something that just sounds considerate for a manager to do. Organizations literally depend on it for their survival and viability, as do managers. Without delegation, an organization would be forever bound by the limitations, physical, intellectual, time, etc., of its founder. And without delegation, managers would be less able to manage the important processes and resources related to their jobs, for they would be too busy trying to do all the work themselves. Without delegation, the sad and inevitable truth is that the total resources that can be marshalled for any task -- physical, intellectual, creative, problem-solving, time, etc. -- are limited to those of the manager. Most of us are neither superhuman nor geniuses, and failing to delegate or to delegate effectively exposes and even magnifies these unfortunate limitations. Delegating effectively helps to nullify them.

Through the eyes of experience

In a training or workshop seminar that may have about 15-25 managers, it is not uncommon to have as much as 150-250 years of accumulated managerial and supervisory experience represented among participants. That is a wealth of experience, and using parts of a training session as a vehicle for articulating the best lessons from it can often be more practical and usable to participants than advice that might be equally sensible, but which comes from sometimes less credible -- to participants -- sources (like management theory and management professors). The ideas and advice stemming from these training sessions have a credibility and practicality born of experience, and they come already field tested.

I have been asking managers and supervisors about delegation: on the need for it, on the reasons why managers and supervisors do not do it more often or do it well enough, and on how anyone interested in delegating more effectively could do so. I have compiled the opinions of more than 250 of them who have participated in training workshops and seminars and present the most frequent answers to these four questions:

* Why should managers and supervisors delegate?

* Why do managers and supervisors not delegate more often or more effectively?

* What are the most important "dos and don'ts" to effective delegation? and

* What are the essential steps in effective delegation?

For the first three of these questions, the top five answers are presented. Each of them was specified by more than 50 percent of all participants and they are each presented in order of frequency of mention. For the fourth question, the most frequently mentioned elements or steps suggested in the delegation process are condensed into a single set of steps.

Why we should delegate

Delegating is, essentially, a numbers strategy. It takes the workload off the shoulders of one person or a few people and spreads it around. It brings more human resources to bear on a task. By implication, this frees up the manager or supervisor for other responsibilities. These managers see delegating foremost as a method of boosting productivity and saving time -- both theirs and their subordinates'.

One of the most important by-products of delegating is in the way it makes one feel -- about oneself and about one's work. This is simply due to the nature of the process. Delegating first gives the recipient more self-control of the work done. And it hardly needs asking: Is self-control preferable to control imposed by someone or something else? Delegating also gives one an opportunity to invest something of oneself in the work, to own it as well as its outcomes. Delegating therefore enhances one's sense of accomplishment and selfesteem, because it is much easier to congratulate oneself for a job that is planned and executed than for another's plan, which is merely executed. Ownership of the plan is almost always more motivating and satisfying than stewardship of someone else's plan.

Successful management and supervision hinges on trust. A working environment where mutual trust prevails has an efficiency that cannot exist in less trusting settings. Where there is trust, more energy is available for getting important work done, whereas the lack of trust diverts energy and attention into activities such as monitoring others, self-protection and maintaining appearances.

Delegation and trust share a mutually dependent but reinforcing type of relationship in that delegation requires an initial level of trust. This trust is fostered through successful experiences with delegated tasks. At the same time, trust is one of those qualities of human relations that tends to motivate. When trust is demonstrated in someone, there is a strong norm among most people to reciprocate with actions that will show the original trust was justified. In this way trust enhances the prospects for delegation, which enhances the prospects for trust.

In quite another way, however, effective delegation also promotes trust among the recipients of delegated tasks toward the delegator. That is because, like the delegator, the recipient must also possess an initial degree of trust: that there will be managerial and material support but without interference; that there will be due credit for successes; that there will be no blame or punishment for good tries which nevertheless fail. Delegation in which these features are a part of the process builds the recipient's trust in the delegator. The overall relationship benefits as a result.

There are many dimensions to the notion of "team." The principal dimension is being an important part of something larger than oneself. This occurs through making an important contribution to important work. Delegation enables one to identify with one's work, allowing one to invest more of oneself in it. When we delegate, we show the recipient our confidence and expectations that he or she can contribute important work to the good of the whole.

Delegation is an investment in the future. When it is done effectively, it virtually guarantees that employees will develop skills and personal resources they might not otherwise acquire. Delegation allows, and eventually requires, employees to sharpen the very abilities that enhance their value to an organization, such as planning, organizing, directing and controlling. When a manager delegates effectively, he or she performs one of the most important functions of management -- developing people.

The top five reasons we don't

As mentioned above, delegation depends ultimately on sufficient trust to justify taking a chance. Some managers, due to situational or personal factors, just cannot -- or will not -- bring themselves to that point. Perhaps they feel that there are no suitable candidates for delegation, that ability or willingness (or both) are lacking in those who are available. Or maybe the stakes are seen to be so high that chances cannot be taken. Whatever the reasons, many managers point to a lack of confidence or trust in others as one of the major obstacles to delegation. The question, of course, concerns whether the low confidence or trust is warranted, or whether it is the product of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similar to the mutually reinforcing relationship between trust and delegation, a demonstrated lack of trust towards another can easily promote reactions in that person which may well confirm the initial assumption of untrustworthiness. It is important for managers to appreciate the bases for low trust or confidence. Are they rooted in observed behaviors? Or assumptions?

Delegation scares many managers because the job rests in the hands of someone else, while ultimate responsibility sits squarely on the manager's shoulders. This dependency and accompanying sense of vulnerability is enough to prevent some managers from delegating at all, except when circumstances make it absolutely unavoidable. What they sometimes fail to realize, however, is that any gains in direct control stemming from a "do-it-myself' approach to management are often more than offset by the losses that eventuate from overload, poor time management and other stresses connected with that approach.

As seen above, fear plays a significant role in many a manager's reluctance to delegate. In this instance, the fear concerns one's own replaceability. The personal anxiety is that in expanding someone else's responsibilities and abilities, we just might inadvertently be making ourselves more replaceable. With this reasoning, the remedy is then to limit our subordinates' opportunities to show their stuff, lest we be unwittingly grooming our own successor or, worse yet, someone who will leapfrog us. The flaw in this thinking is that an important part of most managers' performance appraisal pertains to their ability to develop the people under them. Managers who cannot develop their people are, by definition, wasting or underutilizing the most critical resources of any organization. The manager who forgets or ignores this fact is much, much more replaceable than the one who truly appreciates it.

Very few features of effective management are instinctive or effortless, and effective delegation is no exception. There are some definite shoulds and should-nots that can apply in just about any situation, and not everyone is familiar with them. Also, many managers simply never learned -- at the hands of a good role model, or through self-study, or just trial and error -- the basics of effective delegation, so their experiences with it are limited, and consequently experimenting with delegation might be seen as all the more risky or uncomfortable.

While delegation has been championed for its time-and-labor-saving virtues, it is not cost-free, if the effort required to do it right can be considered a cost. Many managers do not delegate simply because they feel it is just easier to do a job themselves rather than go to the time and trouble of delegating it to another. As a short-term, once-in-a-while strategy this is sometimes fruitful. But as a long-term approach, not delegating just overloads the manager and underutilizes people's abilities.

The top 5 keys to effective delegation

An ability to delegate effectively begins with knowing who would be most suitable for a particular task to be delegated. This places a premium on knowing the unique qualifications of each person who reports to you. It means understanding each person's abilities and willingness to take on the responsibilities in question in order to feel confident and secure about the delegation. And, as noted above, confidence and trust are necessary ingredients to any successful delegation.

Confidence and trust in someone is a product of familiarity -- familiarity with a person's qualifications, his or her attitudes, work ethic, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. "Knowing your people" is first on the list of keys to effective delegation for many managers and supervisors; familiarity with someone tells whether or not confidence or trust is warranted.

But the advice does not stop with words. It is too easy to simply tell someone of confidence or trust. The real credibility of a commitment lies in actions, in how stated confidence or trust in another appears as behavior. How closely is the recipient's work monitored? How much latitude is built into his or her authority? How significant are the projects one delegates? How often does the delegator intrude, interfere or even take back the delegated task by overriding a decision the recipient assumed was his or hers to make? Confidence and trust are essential. But seeing is really believing.

Like any important organizational activity, delegation requires communication. In particular, managers and supervisors mention three areas where communication plays a critical role. The first is in the specification of guidelines surrounding the delegated task. Questions of objectives, time, authority, budget and decision parameters are relevant here. The second area of communication concerns the kind and frequency of any feedback that is to take place during the process of the job. The third area really has to do with different sides of the same dimension of communication, pertaining to communication about the outcomes of the delegated task. Specifically, the advice is to recognize and reward successful projects, but not to blame for unsuccessful ones or for mistakes, especially where the effort was solid and where something can be learned from the experience by the recipient. In this way, the recipient is more likely to embrace delegated tasks as opportunities for contribution, personal success and learning, a perspective which ultimately benefits everyone.

Although the two parts of this recommendation might, at first glance, seem to be different versions of the same basic advice, there are important and distinctive nuances of each. To give people elbow room means to provide them sufficient autonomy and authority in the task, beginning to end, such that they can exercise their own judgment and decisions, so as to own their accomplishments. Hovering is more a matter of style, and can often have little connection with the autonomy or authority parameters of the delegated task. A manager who hovers seems to be ever-present and ever-watchful, often with the stated purpose of simply "being here if you need me." In other words, hovering is not necessarily overtly intrusive or restrictive to the recipient's autonomy. It can, in fact, be quite passive and benign. Whatever the case, though, what such "helpfulness" frequently masks -- but usually conveys, eventually -- is the delegator's insecurity or reluctance to let go or, worse, low confidence or trust in the recipient. Elbow room is a cornerstone of effective delegation. Hovering is a hammer and chisel.

One of the surest ways of harnessing the motivational power of delegation is to delegate work that is perceived by the recipient as meaningful. One of the quickest ways to undermine it is to dump only trivial and insignificant work on someone. Every job has its tedious or less glamorous side, and no one should be spared the full range of experiences and responsibilities that go with a particular type of job. But delegating nothing but trivial work to a person communicates quite unequivocally and compellingly a host of negative and ultimately demoralizing messages about confidence, trust, and the delegator's motives, judgment, and sincerity in developing people. To make delegation work, delegate meaningful work.

How we can delegate

As a final question, these same individuals were asked to suggest step-by-step models for delegating effectively. Such a request produced tremendous variety among approaches, particularly on some of the details of different approaches. Nevertheless, there was a certain consistency among major elements or steps, which should prove helpful to anyone wishing to improve his or her delegation skills:

* Define the task. Clarify what needs to be accomplished, the time frame, what resources are available, etc. These parameters must be clearly stated in order to communicate them later.

* Review and select recipients. Within the context of the task as defined in Step 1, select the recipients of delegation. This does not always mean choosing the most obviously qualified or capable person. If one of your purposes is developmental, it might make as much sense to delegate the task to someone whose skills and knowledge will benefit more from it.

* Inform and instruct recipients. Here, all of the parameters of the task as specified in Step 1 are communicated to the recipients. In particular, several points of information are critical here: (1) Make sure that the recipient is clear on the amount of authority he or she has. Be very specific about this, even quantitative where possible (e.g., expenditures without approval up to a certain dollar figure, etc.). Make sure that the amount of authority delegated is sufficient for the person to accomplish the task. To do otherwise sets up the recipient for eventual frustration and failure. (2) Define any relevant informational, material, budgetary and human resources that are available for the task as well as how to access them. Clarify any processes for requesting additional resources as they are needed. (3) Specify the relevant time frame or time constraints for completion. (4) Agree on the kind and frequency of progress reports. Strive for an arrangement that is mutually satisfactory for both parties, but be specific about target dates. (5) Throughout this phase, provide as much clarification as necessary on what should be accomplished, but avoid giving specific instructions on how it should be accomplished. How-to instructions can too easily become "do-it-my-way" instructions, consequently weakening the recipient's ownership of the job.

* Follow-up support and communication. Here, the goal is to follow through on any target dates for progress reports, and on providing personal and resource support for the recipient and making adjustments as needed. It is important for the delegator to maintain the agreed-upon degree of contact with the project and to convey his or her supportiveness especially at those times, but to be extremely cautious about intruding at other times during the project.

* Final feedback and evaluation. Evaluation of a completed job is a necessary and routine step in most organizations. With delegated tasks, it is very important that the outcome receive priority in evaluation over the methods employed to achieve it. Certainly methods can and should be examined in the interest of the recipient's learning, but the accomplishment of the objectives should receive first consideration. Never should the recipient be made to feel that his or her way of doing the job is inferior simply because it did not square with the delegator's way of doing it. If the methods are critiqued at all, it is often wise for a delegator to first ask the recipient what he or she would do differently, given 20/20 hindsight. This can lead to a fruitful and mutually instructive discussion about the project, and can produce lasting managerial insights for all concerned. And finally, at this concluding stage, don't forget to recognize and praise the recipient's accomplishments. If something went wrong and the job was less successful than expected, look first to the delegation process (including your management of it) and situational factors for the explanation, not to the recipient. Determine the reasons, learn from them, and adjust future delegation processes if needed. Keep any blame to, or for, yourself. In this way everyone can learn and benefit from the experience.


Delegation, it is one of the most essential, yet taken for granted skills a manager can possess. More than 250 managers and supervisors here have given us some sensible ideas as to why we should, why we do not and how we can. So do yourself a favor: delegate!

Stephen R. Axley is Professor of Management at Western Illinois University, where he is director of the Small Business Institute Program and teaches organization development, strategic management and applied leadership skills. He has consulted in these areas to more than 40 organizations in the public and private sector and has served as a staff trainer for the Illinois Institute for Training and Development.

Top 5 Reasons Why We Should Delegate

* Boosts productivity and spreads the workload * Promotes satisfaction of employees * Builds mutual trust and confidence * Promotes team concept * Develops employees

Top 5 Reasons Why We Don't Delegate

* Lack of confidence or trust in others * Fear of loss of control and authority * Personal insecurity and threat to job security * Don't know how * Requires extra effort

Top 5 Keys To Effective Delegation

* Know your people * Have trust and confidence in your people -- and show them * Communicate thoroughly throughout * Allow "elbow room" without hovering * Delegate meaningful tasks

How To Delegate

Step 1 Define the task

* What objectives? * What time frame? * What resources are available?

Step 2 Review and select recipients

Step 3 Inform and instruct recipients

* Clarify authority * Define resources * Specify time frame * Agree on kind and frequency of progress reports * Instruct on "what," not "how"

Step 4 Follow-up support and communication

* Don't interfere or snoop

Step 5 Final feedback and evaluation

* Recognize and praise * Evaluate "what" more than "how" * Don't blame for mistakes learn from them
COPYRIGHT 1992 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Management Skills
Author:Axley, Stephen R.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Successful implementation of management techniques.
Next Article:Helping: the basis of managerial supervision.

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