The art of delegation has never been more important. Organizations are larger, more complex, and have distributed workforces that span the globe. Individual leaders are not scalable, and that makes delegation essential. So why is delegation still so challenging?
What gets in the way of delegation?
Three of the biggest challenges to effective delegation are time, trust, and history.
Time – VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) no longer describes only short-term crises, it’s become a reality for doing business. To make effective decisions in a VUCA environment, employees need leaders to invest their time to–
Time is precious and leaders have very little to spare. However, the alternative to taking time is to delegate work by “throwing it over the wall,” without clear expectations or intent. Throwing work over the wall is a recipe for disastrous results, and it reinforces the bias: “It’s faster if I do it myself!” This reactive micromanagement is a great way to lose talented employees who won’t feel valued, and won’t see opportunities to grow.
Trust – Even with clarity, leaders may not trust people to execute to their standards. Ultimately, leaders are accountable for results, and when a leader’s neck is on the line, the impulse to “control” (vs. “coach”) easily rears its ugly head.
History – The old “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Leaders often started out as talented individual contributors who were rewarded and promoted for their willingness to jump into action and swiftly solve problems. There’s no easy “off switch” for self-reliant behaviors. Just like there’s no easy “on switch” to immediately illuminate the “leadership light” that will refocus someone to coach and motivate others. We tend to hold on to what’s worked for us in the past, even when our role and environment have changed. It takes time, and often coaching, to help leaders make such a significant shift.
What helps leaders delegate?
Build Trust – Leaders must invest their time and attention if they want to build trust with people. We start by building a relationship with someone as a person, understanding their values, strengths, talents, and motivations. When we get to know the whole person, and they get to know us, it builds a deeper foundation for everything that follows.
Invest in People’s Development – Talented people who see no growth path leave for better opportunities. During “The Great Resignation,” droves of talented people left organizations in search of greater purpose, growth opportunities, and a more meaningful connection with company culture. When a leader invests in development, this investment is key to encouraging talented people to stay, grow, and continue to flourish.
Intentionally Create a Coaching Culture – The word “intentionally” may be overkill. Organizations don’t create a coaching culture “by accident.” Creating a coaching culture requires leaders to let go of “command and control” and, instead, develop their bench. Leaders who truly value a coaching culture require coaching as a core competency when they hire, develop, and promote people into leadership roles.
Keep a Finger on the Pulse – Doctors don’t control the details of how a human body works. They assess overall health and search for early warning signs that indicate problems. In the same vein, leaders don’t micromanage how work gets done, but they keep their finger on the pulse of progress. People will make mistakes as they learn. That’s part of growth. The key is to reinforce positive results and coach people to course-correct while mistakes and problems are small, rather than waiting for issues to build to a crisis.
Delegation is not easy. It’s a dynamic balance of knowing when & how to step in and when & how to step back. Nevertheless, delegation is a skill that can be learned, and the only way to learn is to practice.