Revisiting the Art of Delegation

delegation

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While completing a doctorate degree a few years ago, I wrote a paper on the benefits of managers in the workplace truly understanding the need to delegate tasks to their team members. I recently came across that paper and a couple things immediately jumped out at me. There was a sense of management innocence (or more likely, naïveté) on my part that emanated from the paper that I found surprisingly refreshing. Also, my writing style has definitely changed over the past 15 years. Today, I am more blunt about the management or leadership lesson to be learned, as opposed to 15 years ago when I was apparently (based on the paper) blissfully subtler. However, one thing that has remained constant over those years is that the art of delegation is just as important today as it was back then.

Early in my career within the telecommunications industry, I was given an opportunity to manage a relatively small group of engineers at a high tech company. This was my first management assignment and I was eager to get started. As an individual contributor, I was considered extremely adept in my chosen field. Prior to moving into management, I was a software engineer, and most of the engineers in the department were my peers before I became their manager. My transition into management was initially more difficult than I had anticipated. While I was considered very productive as an individual contributor, the collective productivity of my team of engineers was not as high as it should have been. The productivity of each individual engineer was fine before I became their manager. Therefore, I concluded that I must be doing something incorrectly as a leader.

As a new manager at that time, the main problem I faced was trying to do everything myself. There were ten engineers in my department and I still wanted to do everything myself because I felt I was the technical expert. I wanted to ensure that the job was done right. After all, I would not have been promoted to management if it were not for my technical expertise, right? The engineers on my team were extraordinarily gifted in each of their roles. They were known for always meeting—and frequently exceeding—their goals. Yet, a short time after I became their manager, productivity began to drop. Initially, the drop in productivity was barely noticeable; however, over time, the drop began to negatively impact our departmental deliverables.

Additionally, my personal overall productivity as a manager and individual contributor started to drop over time as well. In my new role as a manager, I had gained more responsibilities, which was expected. I found that many of our departmental tasks were not completed on time, because I was attempting to do my management job as well as the jobs of my team members. Conversely, my team members were getting bored because they didn’t have enough work to do and more importantly, felt that I didn’t trust their abilities. By taking on portions of their assignments, I was inadvertently causing their overall productivity to decrease and their mistrust in me to increase.

At this point, I decided to try delegating some of the tasks to the engineers, even though I still felt more qualified to do the tasks myself—a perception that is common to technical individuals who transition into managerial positions. Delegating tasks to the engineers on my team makes sense today; however, it was not that obvious to me as a new manager. After assigning a few tasks to my team members and holding them accountable, I discovered that:

  • My personal workload became manageable again.
  • I was able to direct more tasks thus increasing my span of influence within the broader organization.
  • My engineers were no longer bored because they had work to do.
  • The engineers started to grow again, both personally and professionally.
  • The team developed a sense of shared responsibility.
  • Over time, the team began to trust that I believed in them and had their best interest at heart.
  • More importantly, I found that the engineers could accomplish their assigned tasks just as well as I could, and in many cases much better. (Initially, this was a blow to my ego. Over time, it became a sense of great pride and respect that I have for the team members.)

At that time in my management career, I had no idea that delegating would yield so many positive returns. It was as though someone had given me a tremendous power to do my job more efficiently and effectively. I also found that learning to delegate was something I had to continuously focus on purposefully throughout my managerial career. Failure to effectively delegate is a phenomenon that occurs with experienced and new managers alike. Here are a few key ideas to help managers become better delegators:

  • Allow your team members to do what they were hired to do. This may seem obvious; however, many times managers take on the tasks of their team members thus denying them to do what they were hired to do.
  • Do not delegate without also making the individual accountable for the delegated task as well. Delegating tasks without holding the team member accountable is as bad as not delegating the tasks at all, and can be much worse. If the individual on the receiving end of the delegated task is not held accountable for the task, then more than likely the task may not be completed or it may not be done as effectively as desired.
  • Delegation requires a certain amount of faith that the task will be done and done well. Many times, you as the manager, must have faith that team members will complete the task and do a really good job in the process. If you have doubt about the team member’s ability to complete the task, more than likely she or he will disappoint you. This does not mean that managers should blindly put faith in their team members. This is more about having faith in your team members until they give you a reason to the contrary. Effective delegation also requires learning how to get the best performance out of each individual. Build in the amount of oversight needed to ensure the desired results.

In conclusion, I have found that delegating done well can exponentially multiply the production of the manager. But it takes discipline to delegate regularly and effectively. Even many experienced managers tend to do less delegation than they should. I highly recommend that all managers learn (and in some cases re-learn) the art of delegation. The key to successful delegation is to approach it with the same thoughtful and thorough planning, as with any other task, and building in the aforementioned accountability. Team members must be accountable for their tasks. More importantly, the accountability must be clearly communicated to all. When used correctly, delegation can be a wonderful tool for improving the manager’s efficiency as well as the overall productivity of the team. The team members will appreciate the responsibility given to them and the affirmation of trust in their abilities. For many, this can result in professional growth and increased self-empowerment as well.

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About The Author

Dr. Milton Mattox is an Executive Coach, CEO Peer Group Facilitator, Motivational Speaker, Author and Technologist who has worked with some of the world’s most acclaimed companies. An authority in helping CEOs overcome everyday business challenges to achieve the success that they seek, career coach and expert in “all things technology-based,” he continues to practice the leadership techniques and methodologies outlined in his books and articles to successfully increase return on investment for companies, organizations, and individuals seeking to be all that they desire to be in life.

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