Ditch those delegation dilemmas


Almost anyone with a job and colleagues can delegate…..in theory.  In practice, the picture is not so rosy for many of us. Those who can’t or won’t delegate because “it’s quicker to do it myself”; or who enjoy doing the work so much, and the task of efficiently running their departments or work portfolios too little.

If allowed to flourish, the results of these behaviours tend not to be impressive. Overburdened, stressed-out task ‘junkies’. Wrongly leveraged and unprofitable work flows. Frustrated juniors who are not allowed to develop and who leave. And in the worst cases, clients or customers who are also dissatisfied and go elsewhere.

The strong desire of professionally-trained people always to want to do the best possible job is perfectly understandable. But there should be no dilemma if this is at the expense of personal, staff, or business ‘health’. Here are three principles that can help delegation work properly.

You can delegate authority but not responsibility*  Overcoming the psychological barriers to delegation is the biggest challenge. Doing it is the second. Then recognising that we must still take responsibility for what is delegated is the final achievement – whether it was a success or not. If it’s a success, we hand out the plaudits; if not, we take the rap.  But whisper this quietly – there are many who have made careers out of passing or avoiding the buck.   They are usually the ones that none of the rest of us like to work with or for.

Don’t sit on it!   One of the biggest sins in the people management canon is to incubate a piece of work, chicken-style (perhaps for days or weeks), only delegating at the last moment. This presents the poor recipient with a double challenge – coping with the work being delegated and juggling their often heavy existing workload and commitments.

Reluctant delegators sometimes perceive that such a tactic will somehow stimulate the poor recipient into glorious action if “it’s an emergency!”. It won’t.  More likely, it will only inspire future dread of the same thing happening again and a ‘run for the hills’ response.

Be specific..and the rest   Assuming that a task has been appropriately delegated, nine times out of 10 it will only go wrong if instructions are not made clearly or comprehensively enough. Here, the old management saw of SMART needs to be applied.

Make sure that you are Specific (it is very easy to give vague instructions that can be misinterpreted); that the task is Measurable (defining clearly what successful performance will look like and result in); Agreed (the recipient contributing to what is ‘agreed’ rather than being just ‘told’); Realistic (giving unreasonable targets does not set people up for success – and it is what is realistic for THEM not YOU); and finally, Time-bound (with clear, specific deadlines and milestones).

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

* From ‘A Good Lawyer: Secrets Good Lawyers (And Their Best Clients) Already Know’ (2010) by Stephen W. Comiskey