Photo: Mimi Thian on Unsplash

“Sorry, did you mean to delegate that?”

Delegation, it can’t be that difficult. I mean it’s hardly a skill at all!

At least that’s what I thought until one day, as Regional Director of quite a large business (yes, that’s how far I had managed to get without having a clue about delegation), I had a 360 degree appraisal. And one of the items under the points for improvement read something like “Chris marches down the office with a pile of work for you, leaves it on your desk with the scantest of explanations and disappears as quickly as he arrived.”

Now, we all pretend that 360 degree appraisals are anonymous, but personally I have never failed to identify who made which comment, however well they might have tried to disguise it. (Not that there have ever been adverse consequences. I have been grateful for all the feedback I have received through the years: it is critical for personal growth.) Anyhow, I went off to see Wendy Falk, the office manager (for it was she) to enquire what was behind her comment.

In the ensuing conversation it struck me that delegation is not a skill on its own, but a complex activity that draws on a constellation of skills every manager needs.

Strategic thinking. So before you delegate anything, you need to ask whether there is a business case, informal or formal, for the job. Remember, strategy is as much about what you don’t do as what you do. Are you just commissioning this item of work because the resources happen to be available? Will it make the boat go faster or should it rightfully languish at the bottom of your in-tray indefinitely?

Integrity. Examine your motives in delegating (or not delegating). Is your resistance to delegating something to do with staying in your comfort zone? You tell yourself you’re so good and quick at this work, you may as well do it yourself, yet you are going to neglect some hard thinking, business development or challenging relationships in order to do it. Alternatively, are you delegating for an easy life?Is your team working until 8:00 when you’re leaving at 5:00?

Communication. At the heart of delegation is an explanation of the task, the associated activities, resources, timeframe, levels of delegated authority, and any intermediate gateways. What will the success criteria be? The communication process can be simplified if similar work done previously to the required standard is available as a reference. The communication element of delegation should be a dialogue so that when you reach the end, the delegator and delegee are in agreement over what is to be done.

Creating meaning. The delegation conversation is a great opportunity for you to create meaning for your team. Explain the product is required, not just what, how, who and when. Tie it into the company’s mission and goals.

Trust. If the communication element is not executed successfully then you are setting yourself up for a perceived betrayal of trust when the task is not completed to the standard or deadline that you imagined you had agreed. Additionally the way in which you delegate is an acid test of the trust you have in your team. If you insert too many gateways or, worse still, let the team get halfway through the job and then take it back, they are going to (probably correctly) interpret it as a lack of trust in them.

Personal development. This is a good motive for delegating. The right project for an individual or team can help reinforce recent learning or take them to a new level of understanding. Your habit of not delegating may be denying others an opportunity for growth.

Equipping your team for success. It’s one thing stretching your team, quite another landing them with a project that is so far beyond their current skillset that they will flounder. Do they have the necessary abilities, training and experience to be able to tackle the task? And if not, is training or mentoring available to fill the gaps? Are you allocating a task to an individual when a team is required? Are you able to secure access for them to the resources they will need? Keith Grint of Cranfield School of Management provided a useful way of thinking about the extent of the network required to address a particular task. You can read more here. In the meantime the diagram below summarises his thesis.

Individualisation. Which brings us to individualisation, or, as my old boss, George Marsden used to say, “know thy staff.” What is a stretch project that will be eagerly sought by one person is another’s nightmare. In delegating you need to take into account not only pre-existing skills and experience but also drive, ambition and willingness to learn. The same applies to the support you provide. One person’s headroom is another’s anxiety provoking ambiguity. One person’s coaching is another’s interference. “What do you want from me?” is a good question to ask.

Performance management. I hope by now that it is evident that delegation doesn’t end when the task is off your desk! Not only do you need to provide an appropriate level of support, but at some stage(s) in the delegation process you will need to give feedback. The normal rules apply: give five times a much praise as (constructive) criticism. Praise in public, criticise in private. Concentrate on the behaviours and outcomes and not the person. And, before you start, be clear on your personal part in any performance shortfall — see “equipping your team…” above.

Debriefing. Finally, don’t omit the learning opportunity that a proper internal debrief at the end of the project offers. I like the Mission-Excellence LEARN model. The rest of this piece has been a miserable failure in terms of a mnemonic — whoever heard of SICCTPEIPD? It hardly trips off the tongue — but LEARN is worth knowing. Lead by example (admit your own mistakes first), Establish the parameters (what were the original aims and objectives?), Analyse the execution, Review the learning, Notify the learning as appropriate.

So, thanks Wendy Falk, George Marsden, Justin Hughes of M-X, and all the other people along the way that have informed my perspective on delegation. And apologies to the innumerable colleagues that had to suffer before I gained some sort of grip. Let me know if you come up with a meaningful word that has SICCTPEIPD as an anagram.

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Coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of the book Compassionate Leadership

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Chris Whitehead

Coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of the book Compassionate Leadership