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The art of delegation. (Career Management).

Effective delegation is a large part of a manager's position. Physician executives are expected to be skilled delegators and able to lead team efforts to meet larger organizational goals. Delegation should be a five-step process: (1) Describe the results you want; (2) Listen for suggestions about how the task should be done; (3) Give autonomy and freedom to accomplish the task; (4) Follow up; and (5) Give feedback and credit. This column explores the art of delegating and how to assess your skills in this key management area.

Some see delegation as shirking their duties or bossing people around. "Effective delegators aren't autocrats or power mongers. They don't look on their people as competitors, as 'the enemy,' or as vassals or peons. Rather they see their subordinates as resources for achieving results," (1)

Others want to appear extremely busy. "Some managers consider their 60-hour weeks and the bulging briefcases they take home every night to be signs of success. The truth is that these managers are actually 'doers,' Lacking the ability to effectively pass on tasks to their subordinates, they end up 'doing; when they should be managing....There's a famous tale that says oil baron John D. Rockefeller once told a manager, 'You're working too hard. Put your feet up on the desk and think about how Standard Oil can make more money....Remember that time spent thinking and planning is a manager s number one duty." (1) Other management verbs are: coaching, organizing, directing, coordinating. You don't have time for them unless you are delegating a significant number of tasks.

I asked Roger Schenke, Executive Vice President of the American College of Physician Executives, why some people have trouble delegating. He said, "You won't delegate if your goal is to protect the institution, making it error free. If I think my boss is going to chop me up if something goes wrong, I'm not going to delegate. Also, micromanagers give people tasks to do that they really want to do themselves. Everyday, they will check on what they are doing. Sometimes you learn to delegate because you have too many tasks to keep up with. You'll notice something got done, you didn't approve it first, and it was done well. It offends you a bit at first, but then you realize it frees you up to think of new projects." (2)

You don't want to delegate a task to someone who cannot do it, so you have to know the people who work for you. That "doesn't mean you have to join them at the local tavern or sit in on lunch hour gossip sessions. It means you have to be observant and interested in how they do their jobs, and listen to their suggestions, ideas, and complaints. And it means you have to reach out from time to time to gain a sense of the person as a person, not just as a worker. That includes, at times. understanding their family problems, hearing of the victories and defeats in their lives outside the workplace, and giving them time to tell you about their personal aspirations in their private lives as well as on the job." (1)

As a way to think about whether or not the person will be able to do the job, ask yourself these questions:

1. "Will the person have time to do the task?

2. Does the person have the ability to do the task?

3. Is the person trained to do the task?

4. If the person lacks the skills to do the task, can he or she be taught those skills in a reasonable period of time?

5. Is the person generally reliable?

6. Is the person seeking Out new responsibility?" (3)

The delegation process

Delegation should be a five-step process:

1. Describe the results that you want

"spend enough time to be sure the person understands." (4) Suppose you are delegating the task of performance evaluations to five department chairs. You could describe how you want them done. "I'd like you to have evaluation forms filled out on each physician by two peers, two subordinates, and me. Collect the appropriate computer data on lengths of stay, outcomes, pharmacy utilization, patient satisfaction, etc. and send all the information to the physicians before the review. Schedule an hour to sit with him, go over the information, offer appropriate praise, mention any concerns you have, ask the physician what concerns he has, and then ask how you can help him reach his goals for the coming year." "Avoid being a 'drive-by-delegator'--someone who assigns tasks as they pass a staff member in the corridor. Make sure the employee is in a milieu where he or she will be focused and have access to a notebook and pen to record instructions." (5)

2. Listen for suggestions about how the person thinks the task should be clone

He or she will have some good ideas that will be different from some of what you were thinking. This also helps you know if they understand what it is that you want done.

3. Give them autonomy and freedom

"Give the person the resources and tools necessary to do the task or process properly." (4)

"Sometimes, you might have to pass along authority to spend money, or to give orders, or to make use of company property." (1) Once you are satisfied that they understand what you want done, then turn them loose for a while. Encourage them as they go off to do the task. "Confidence is contagious. Verbally and by your actions. make clear your faith in your subordinates' abilities to overcome obstacles and get results." (1)

4. Follow up

You don't delegate a task and then never check in to see how the person is doing. That is not delegation--it is abdication. You can say, "Let's get together in two weeks to see how things are going." You can "keep tabs n progress with a series of reviews. Keeping a log also provides data for performance evaluations and ensures employees receive due credit for accomplishments." (6)

5 Give feedback and credit

"Feedback is also important in delegation. A word of encouragement from you not only tells delegatees that they've made the right decision, but also lets them know that they were right to make a decision." (1) "Don't accept or attempt to redo subpar work. Return it with suggestions for improvements." (6) "Remember that the person performing the task may not do it as well as you do it. Don't be tempted to take over the project. Weigh the time you might lose at first against the time you'll save in the long run. (7) You will certainly discuss what went wrong with the subordinate, but "remember that people can take only a limited amount of criticism at any one time. When they reach that limit, they become defensive, begin to reject the validity of the criticism, and 'tune out' altogether." (1)

"Give your subordinates credit for their successes with delegated tasks. But if they fail, take the blame yourself. Sound unfair? It is." (1) This is particularly true when you are reporting failures to people above you. "You can't point to your delegatee and tell your boss that it's not your fault a task was botched. You are responsible. Period." (1)

Allow some room for mistakes. They are "an essential part of learning through experience. Mistakes aptly illustrate what not to do. And the person who has learned what not to do is wiser than the person who has never been allowed to venture far enough to make an error...Delegation flourishes in an atmosphere that emphasizes rewards over punishment....Your subordinates won't take many chances if they have little to gain and a great deal to lose," (1)

"Executives in any number of professions have said ... 'It's easier to just do it myself than to teach someone.'...That's the way a boss thinks, not the way a leader thinks. While it may be easier to do the task yourself today, it will not be easier, or more time-effective, to do the task yourself in the long run... A physician must complete a complex financial report every month. In January, it seems easier for her to do the report rather than make time to explain it to someone else. But while this may save hours in January, the physician will still be doing the report alone In February, March. and until the end of time. By showing a coworker how to do the report in January, helping the coworker complete the report in February, and reviewing the coworkers finished project in March, the physician has successfully delegated that task to a staff member who may do it for 20 years. And even It that staff member quits next week, he or she can train a replacement." (4)

Delegation is the most effective way to get more done and become a better manager.


(1.) Jenks, James M. and John Kelly. Don't Do. Delegate! New York: Ballentine Books, 1985.

(2.) Schenke, Roger. Interview July 29, 1997.

(3.) Tepper, Bruce B. Delegation Skills. Burr Ridge, Illinois: Irwin Professional Publishing Mirror Press, 1994.

(4.) Unique Opportunities, May/June 1997.

(5.) "Shun 'drive-by' delegation," The Working Communicator, April 1997, p. 5.

(6.) "Sharpen your delegating skills," The Working Communicator, August 1997, p. 2.

(7.) "Ideas to Use when Delegating," Communication Briefings, 1101 King Street, Suite 110, Alexandria, VA 222314, Volume XV, Number IV, p. 6.


1. You often say 'Do this' rather than 'How's it going?

2. You don't tolerate the least error

3. You don't share information

4. Your subordinates fail to seek your assistance, or seek it too frequently

5. You fail to learn about problems until subordinates are actually floundering.

6. No one wants to act without something in writing from the boss.

James Jenks & John Kelley from Don't Do, Delegate. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1985.

Barbara J. Linney, MA, is the Director of Career Development at the American College of Physician Executives in Tampa, Florida and a member of its faculty She can be reached at 800/562-8088.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American College of Physician Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Linney, Barbara J.
Publication:Physician Executive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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