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The delegation dilemma: when do you let go? Learning how to delegate effectively may mean the difference between success and failure for managers in today's dynamic business world. (ManagementWise).

At the Core

This article:

* Lists the benefits of delegating

* Discusses reasons why people do not delegate

* Gives recommended approaches for planning, delegating, and monitoring work on the delegated task

Being a manager in our rapidly changing business environment -- and less-than-booming economy -- is increasingly challenging. Managers seem to have 1,001 responsibilities with more being added all the time. The only practical way to survive is by delegating some tasks to others. Many, however, resist this suggestion. Some have had the unfortunate experience of delegating a task to someone only to have that person not perform up to expectations. As a result, they may have come to believe that "if you want something done right, do it yourself."

More and more managers are being faced with this dilemma. To overcome its challenge and grow to be thriving, productive, and inspirational, managers must

* truly want to delegate

* know how to delegate

* diligently take the steps necessary to delegate the right way

* monitor the performance of the work, once assigned

Why Delegate?

A manager's job is about the goals of producing the greatest amount of work of the highest quality that meets or exceeds the expectations of the organization while, at the same time, continually helping to improve the skills and commitment of co-workers and staff. When handled effectively, though, delegating helps managers accomplish these goals by

* ensuring that the most capable people available perform each task

* enabling people to learn new skills and successfully accept increasing amounts of responsibility and autonomy

* freeing managers to work on those tasks they are best positioned to perform

* allowing those managers to expand their contributions to the organization from what they do themselves to what they can guide and influence others to do

Stumbling Blocks

Oftentimes, managers may not think to delegate a task, or they may believe it easier to do it themselves. This, however, is simply a conditioned reaction based on established habits. It certainly takes some effort to look for opportunities to delegate tasks to others -- and to do it in a way that creates the greatest likelihood of achieving successful results. But there often are even more powerful beliefs and fears that may stop managers from doing what rationally makes sense. Some of the more common problems:

* Throughout much of their careers, most employees have been rewarded for their technical skills, knowledge, and task performance. Conditioned to this system at a lower rung on the organizational ladder, many managers fear that having others perform the technical work of a task will diminish the magnitude and importance of their own personal contribution in the eyes of their superiors.

* Managers may genuinely enjoy the technical work associated with a task. Many records analysts, for example, enjoy records retention research and information inventories. When promoted to a level of management, they are reluctant to give away these non-managerial tasks to others.

* Managers may feel that delegating a task to someone else may be perceived as just a way to get out of doing the difficult work themselves.

* Managers may feel that, in a crunch, they are the only people who can get the work done on time with the highest quality.

* Even though managers delegate a task to someone else, they are still responsible for its results. Managers may not be comfortable with managing performance to ensure the results conform to their own standards and requirements.

There is considerable truth to the saying that "there is an inverse relationship between the degree of technical ability required and the level of management achieved." As technical or analytical staff become supervisors and managers, the need for technical skills diminishes and the need for people skills increases.

No matter what the reasons are for hesitation, those who do not want to delegate will avoid doing so. Before worrying about how to delegate, managers must first address and reconcile potential inhibitors. The following are suggestions on how to handle this process:

Clarify the elements of the position.

Are people in this position really expected to do all the technical work themselves or just ensure that the work is done to established standards of performance?

Discuss with a supervisor what the key tasks and responsibilities of the position are. Read a copy of the job description -- if one exists. Observe others performing successfully in the same type of job. Decide if the tasks and responsibilities with the job are more managerial rather than tactical.

Consider the case of a woman who had been in charge of managing the acquisition, handling, and disposition of all files and records in her department for 10 years. Because of her extensive knowledge of company systems and procedures and her unquestioned dedication to her job, she was recently promoted to the position of chief information manager for the company. All eight of the departmental records managers now report to her. After a month on the job, she told her supervisor she had to resign from her new position because she was working 80 hours or more a week. It turned out that she had been personally developing the plans for managing the records in each of the company's eight departments herself. Her supervisor explained that her new job did not require that she personally develop all information management plans in the company; she just had to ensure that someone developed them and that they conformed to the general standards and practices of the company and the industry.

Recognize and accept the Law of Comparative Advantage. The Law of Comparative Advantage dictates that people should spend their time where they realize the greatest benefits from their efforts. The best lawyer in town may also be the fastest typist, but the fee for an hour of legal work is greater than for an hour of a typist's time Suppose the lawyer could get as much legal work as desired. It would be in the lawyer's best interest to spend an hour doing legal work rather than typing briefs because the substantive and financial benefits would be greater.

Managers should identify those tasks which they are best qualified to perform and then rank them according to importance and benefit. All other things being equal, it is in everyone's best interest for managers to do only those tasks of highest importance and to delegate the rest to others.

Figure out ways to keep abreast of the work on a task to satisfy ongoing interest. Ensure the work is performed in accordance with standards and expectations set, and enable information-sharing about task progress with others who are interested parties.

Learn how to delegate effectively. Select tasks that are appropriate for delegation and plan for and make the delegation. Following up during and after performance will give the manager confidence that the assignment will be successfully completed in accordance with all applicable performance standards.

Delegating Effectively

Contrary to what one might think, successful delegation requires more than simply giving someone else a task to do. It requires planning out the delegation, making the delegation, monitoring the work during performance, and then certifying the final results. To do all of this successfully, some guiding principles are important.

In preparing to delegate, remember the following guidelines:

Authority can be delegated; responsibility cannot. Authority is the ability to make decisions; responsibility is the obligation to ensure certain results are achieved. If a client is promised software that will produce a particular financial report, the authority to write the program code can be delegated. However, ensuring that the finalized program meets the client's expectations is the delegator's responsibility.

Not all tasks are appropriate for delegation. Sometimes, the characteristics of a task suggest a manager could more appropriately handle it. The following questions can help determine whether to delegate a task:

* Are the desired outcomes sufficiently well defined? If the task is unclear, how can a manager expect the person to whom the work is delegated to understand it?

* Does the majority of the task entail applying established practices and procedures, or does it require a significant amount of independent judgment and choice?

If possible, consider delegating tasks with well-defined approaches first, especially if the person assigned to the task has limited experience with similar work, has not worked extensively with the delegator in the past, or has had earlier problems performing delegated tasks.

Whenever possible, delegate tasks on the project's "critical path" to others. The U.S. Navy developed the Critical Path Method almost 50 years ago to support the planning and scheduling of large and complex projects. A critical path is a sequence of project activities on which a delay will immediately result in an overall project delay. Many managers might want to keep such tasks for themselves since they would want to watch them closely and do everything possible to minimize delay.

Delegation is not an all-or-nothing proposition; different levels of authority associated with a task can be delegated.

Consider the following six degrees of delegation:

* Get in the know. Get the facts and bring them to the manager for further action.

* Show someone the way to go. Develop alternative actions to take based on the facts found.

* Go when told to do so. Be prepared to take one or more of the actions proposed, but don't do anything until told to do so.

* Go unless told not to. Tell the manager what has been proposed to do and when, and take these recommended actions unless the manager says otherwise.

* How'd it go? Analyze the situation, develop a course of action, take action, and let the manager know the results.

* Just go! Here's a situation; deal with it. The manager doesn't want to hear about it again.

Planning the Delegation

Consider the following issues when preparing to delegate:

Define expectations clearly. Clarify the product expected, the timeframe within which the work has to be done, and the level of effort and resources that can be expended on the task. If appropriate, specify particular procedures that have to be followed when performing the work. If a third party has asked to have this task performed, be sure that everyone agrees with the defined expectations.

Choose the right person. When selecting the person to whom the task will be delegated, consider

* the particular technical skills and knowledge that the task will require

* whether the person has done similar tasks before

* the extent to which you have worked with this person before

* whether the person would be interested in performing this task

Choose the level of delegation that is appropriate for the task and with which the manager is comfortable. Consider the following situation: A person with 10 years of experience in the purchasing field has just joined a company and has been assigned to the internal consulting group headed by a particular manager. The manager wants to assign him a project to revise the company's procedures for requisitioning and approving the purchase of medium-sized items ($10,000 to $50,000). The manager respects his understanding of purchasing practices and procedures in general but feels he lacks familiarity with the company's records systems for such purposes (e.g., microfilming all purchases of more than $10,000). The manager would be uncomfortable giving him an assignment to develop and implement the procedures on his own and to report how things went only after the procedures were in place. A more appropriate arrangement might be to adopt the "Go unless the manager says no" approach -- in which the worker would develop the procedures and related forms and then submit them to the manager for approval.

Making the Delegation

When the task to be delegated and the person to whom it will be assigned are identified, make the delegation in the following steps:

Clearly and completely explain what must be done. Specify measurable indicators that will be used to confirm that the product meets expectations. Explain why the task is important.

Explain how the task will ultimately benefit the organization and how specifically it will help others to perform work for which they are responsible. Explain what the person can gain by performing the task, such as new technical knowledge or organizational visibility and relationships.

Explain any constraints you would like the person to observe as he or she performs the task. Such constraints might include start and end dates, maximum levels of resources to be used, and procedures for performing associated work. Clarify that these are guidelines and targets that must be observed.

Encourage the person to estimate the time and resources needed to complete the task. If the person feels that more time and/or more or different resources are needed than allowed to perform the task, work with the person to

* break the task into smaller pieces with associated intermediate milestones

* develop alternative approaches that will allow the work to be done within the established-constraints

* consider the possibility of modifying one or more of the constraints or expectations

If the person feels, at the outset, that it will not be possible to accomplish the task within the constraints posed, it's likely the expectations will not be met.

Let the person know it is acceptable to say "no." If, after considering all options, the person does not have the time or resources needed to do the assignment, encourage that person to speak up. It is better to know initially rather than later that someone else would be better suited for the task.

Explain which of the six levels of delegation describes the relationship to be established with the person. Explain clearly what authority the person has for completing the task and why.

Encourage the person to ask questions regarding any aspect of the assignment that is unsure or uncomfortable. Emphasize that the person is welcome to continue asking such questions at any time while performing the assignment.

Use "active listening" techniques to ensure the person has accurately understood the information shared. Encourage the person to describe the details of the assignment and listen carefully for any ambiguous language or missing elements, which should be discussed until both parties are clear. Be careful to avoid the practice of "parroting." A manager tells a staff person to develop a records disposition schedule that is in accordance with the latest applicable industry standards. When the person repeats that he will develop the schedule "in accordance with the latest applicable industry standards," the manager does not know whether the person genuinely understands the assignment. In this case, the manager would rather that the person indicate that he will "review schedules for this records series developed by the 10 best known companies in the industry."

Put all key elements of the task assignment in writing. This document serves as a convenient reference and reduces the chance of misinterpretation or forgetting something important.

Be sure the person makes a specific commitment to complete the assignment in accordance with certain expectations. The best way to get this commitment is in writing. Preferably, the person accepting the assignment will send an e-mail reaffirming what has been agreed to. At the least, the manager might draft a description of the assignment and ask the staff person to initial it or make changes.

Confirm the person is committed to doing the work properly. If not possible, get the person's supervisor to agree that the person will be allowed to commit to perform this assignment.

Work with the person to set up a schedule for monitoring progress on the assignment. Ask the person to identify key milestones during the task and when they will be reached. Agree to call at those times to see if work is proceeding as expected.

Managing the Work

Periodically check with the person in accordance with the agreed schedule to confirm that work is proceeding as planned. A regular progress review offers an opportunity to promptly identify and address any problems promptly, as well as to reaffirm the importance of the assignment.

Recognize and acknowledge the person's efforts throughout the assignment. Express appreciation for the work performed to date and, if possible, tell others associated with the project about the delegate's accomplishments.

If a change in any aspect of the original task assignment is required, assess the impact of the change and work with the person to develop a revised schedule and resource budget, as needed. Be sure to identify and deal with any needed changes promptly, and maintain a question-friendly environment.

As work progresses, consistently encourage the person to share questions or concerns about any aspect of the assignment. Emphasize that the person is expected to share possible ways of addressing problems or issues in addition to identifying them.

When the person successfully completes the assignment, formally express appreciation. Consider sending a simple e-mail to the person with a copy to their direct supervisor. Also, thanking the supervisor for allowing the person to participate is good business etiquette.

Delegation is a fundamentally important management function. The more seriously the process of delegating is approached, the more likely the people asked to accept the assignment will meet their commitments. Handled correctly, delegation can -- and should be -- a mutually rewarding event. Managers maximize the amount and quality of work they produce while helping others make significant contributions to important projects and develop valuable job skills and organizational experience in the process.

RELATED ARTICLE: Potential delegating pitfalls.

As managers hone their delegating skills, they should give special attention to avoiding these potential pitfalls.

* Using the "dump-and-run" approach. Delegation is a team effort, rather than an opportunity to offload an unpleasant task. Giving someone a task and expecting to have no further involvement until the task's final product is produced greatly reduces the likelihood of success.

* Reverse delegation. Beware of the person who accepts the assignment and then asks the delegator to make all major and minor decisions while the work is being performed. This suggests that either the level of delegation has been inadequately defined, too many ambiguities remain about what the person is supposed to produce, or the wrong person has been chosen for the assignment.

* Delegating a task that requires expertise the delegator lacks. Since a delegator cannot personally assess the quality of the results, find others who can. Set up a review panel to examine the technical integrity of the products produced.

Stan Portny, President of Stanley E. Portny and Associates, LLC, has been involved in project management for 28 years as a trainer and consultant. He is the author of Project Management For Dummies and a Project Management Institute certified Project Management Professional (PMP). He may be reached at
COPYRIGHT 2002 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Portny, Stanley E.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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