3 Variables of Delegation

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I was still adapting to my new position on the West Coast when I got a call from my boss, Ed, in New York. Our company president had assigned him the task of arranging for a new warehouse in the Phoenix area. Ed explained things, and I asked a few questions. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Okay, it’s your baby. Go get us a warehouse.”

That’s delegation, and without it, not much would get done in business. The president of our company delegated a job to my boss, and he, in turn, delegated it to me.

Even though Ed had given me the responsibility for finding that warehouse, he was still the one responsible to his boss. One of the key things about delegation is that you can assign the responsibility for a job to someone else, but you’re still responsible for their behavior. That may not always be fair, but that is always the way that it is.

Misperceptions About Delegation

Too much writing about delegation ignores the realities. One reality is that delegation is not a single act, it’s a whole series of connected acts.

When my boss assigned me the job of finding a new warehouse, he didn’t just do it once and then wait for my final report. We were in touch throughout the project. That made it easy to deal with issues when they came up and improved the likelihood that we would complete our assignment effectively.

The other big misperception about delegation is that it’s always a good thing. Some writers even put delegation on one side and micromanagement on the other side, with delegation as the good thing and micromanagement as the bad thing. Reality is a lot more complex than that. Here are the three variables to consider if you want to delegate effectively.

Consider the Person

You might choose to not delegate at all, or delegate differently, depending on the person involved. Different strokes for different folks.

My boss knew that I had the ability to do what he was asking me to do. We’d worked together for a while. He knew the assignments that I handled and my strengths and weaknesses. He also knew that he didn’t need to “motivate” me to do a good job.

When you consider delegating a task to a team member, think about their strengths and weaknesses and personal style. Think about how they act and the kinds of assignments they’ve handled.

Do they have the skills necessary to do the job you’re assigning? If not, this could be a developmental opportunity for them, but it will mean you will have to pay closer attention to the details.

Is that team member the sort of person who chips in to help others when it’s necessary? If so, no worries. But if the person has required close supervision in the past, they’ll probably need it this time, too.

There’s also a special case to consider here. If you’re using this as a developmental assignment, you may find that a team member who normally chips in enthusiastically might hold back a little bit. That’s normally because the new task is something they’re not confident about. In that case, your job is to coach them, help them achieve some small wins, and build their confidence.

Consider the Situation

Every situation is different and sometimes the differences make you choose alternate ways to follow up. Ask yourself whether the assignment might be dangerous for your team member, the company, or others. If so, you might want to check in more often or review actions while they’re still in the planning stage. You might even want to reserve some decisions for your more experienced consideration.

Consider the Work

The work, the actual task itself, is the third key variable. Make sure your team member has all the resources he or she needs to get the job done. Resources include money, people, support services, and time.

On my “Get us a warehouse” assignment, there were a few times when I needed help from my boss. One important one was that he broke through a bottleneck in the legal department by walking to their offices and handling a thorny issue face-to-face.

Pay attention to how you pass your assignment along. I learned part of my leadership trade in the Marines. We used what’s called a “mission order.”

A mission order is an instruction that gives the person receiving it a clear idea of what needs to be accomplished, which leaves the details of how to accomplish the mission up to them. The Army has something similar under the heading “Commander’s intent.”

The concept goes all the way back to Helmuth von Moltke in the late 19th Century. His description is still the best.

“The rule to follow is that an order shall contain all, but also only, what subordinates cannot determine for themselves to achieve a particular purpose.”

Bottom Line

Delegation is a critical skill for a leader. Handled well, delegation is a means to accomplish great things, to help team members grow and develop, and build confidence and trust. Before you delegate, consider the person and resources available to them, consider the situation, and shape your assignment to give them the maximum freedom to choose the best way to do things.

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