Delegation versus empowerment

A continuous challenge

Delegation is a continuous challenge for quite a few managers. Especially when they need to delegate critical tasks under their direct responsibility, the threshold to delegation can become very high. I have known and still know a lot of managers that would rather do the work themselves under those circumstances.

Delegation failures are the fault of the manager

I’m going to take an extreme position again, in order to try and make my point. I believe the delegation failures are quite often about the lack of delegation ability from the manager, which can be trained for.
But currently, for most managers, I really don’t think delegation works. I believe it does not go far enough in order to enable breakthrough performance in our collaborators. And it’s all about the nature of delegation.

Examining delegation

Let’s examine delegation in a bit more detail: when I delegate something to someone, I ask that person to accomplish something under my final responsibility. I can delegate different things in different manners, depending on the level of confidence I have in the ability of the person I delegated to. Note that I said confidence instead of trust. I don’t think trust is a necessary component in delegation.

I can delegate from a single task to the responsibility for an entire process. I can delegate an activity or a set of activities. Now, the higher the level of confidence in the ability of my collaborator, the more freedom I will give to that collaborator. Freedom may come in the form of reduced reporting requirements, higher acceptable deviation thresholds, but it seldom comes with a blank check to achieve a certain objective. And perhaps that is the most important problem of all.

Delegation does not motivate

Because a key aspect that is sorely lacking in delegation is a strong motivator to those charged with execution. And let’s be honest, why would you put your everything into a task that has been assigned to you by somebody who clearly does not feel comfortable giving you this work? If you do not feel that your manager has enough confidence in your ability to pull it off without him or her giving you detailed instructions, you will lose a significant amount of your effectiveness even before you start the work.

So, let’s recap: first, I don’t think most managers know how to delegate. Second, I don’t think most managers dare to delegate. And last, when they do delegate, they fail to motivate.

I hope we can agree that we appear to have a significant problem. So, how are we going to solve this?

Most of our collaborators are grown ups

I don’t think starting to treat our employees as small children will solve the issue. The first thing the manager needs to realize is that he is dealing with grown, adult people, most of whom will rise to the occasion when given the responsibility to achieve something. Or, to put it another way, as a manager you need to feel confidence that the people working for you can do their jobs. If they cannot, perhaps they should not be working for you in the first place.

Empowering employees

Once we’ve established that, we need to then effectively give these broad responsibilities to our employees. How, I hear you ask? I think there are two steps that are essential here.

  • The first step is to paint a clear and concise image of the expected results. What do you want them to achieve by delegating this responsibility to them? What does it look like? What you should not do is to give them detailed instructions on how to achieve that objective. You need to have enough confidence in their abilities to translate your ideas into operational reality. If you cannot do that you are not a good manager.
  • But being a good manager does not end there. You also need to be available for your collaborators. You need to make it clear to them that you are door is open if they want to consult with you on how to achieve their objectives. Note I am no longer saying “your objective”. At this point it should have turned into their objective. Fundamentally, you need to turn into a mentor, ready with advice when asked but not sooner. If you are available to answer the questions they may have, without providing them went too detailed a set of instructions, you are on your way to becoming a good manager capable of delegation.

Empowerment does not prevent assessment

Your final responsibility is to check their results comply with the requirements you have painted when describing the expected results. Any deviations need to be identified, and you need to explain why they are considered to be nonconformities. Again, you are not providing detailed instructions on how to correct. You are not judgmental either. You just assess.

Empowerment is a vote of confidence

These simple steps lead to something which I don’t even consider traditional delegation. These steps lead to empowerment. And empowerment is the most committed vote of confidence a collaborator can get from his manager. You should try it once.