Author and coach Bill Hawkins

In 20 years of conducting leadership seminars and one-on-one coaching with executives, what would you guess to be the most common complaint I hear?

It sounds something like this:

There’s just so much on my plate. The amount of work that needs to be done can be overwhelming. There are meetings, conference calls, administrative requirements, not to mention routine emergencies that suck up all my time. It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

And what advice does our busy leader get? “You need to delegate more.” 

Surprisingly, the answer for the “not enough hours in the day” boss isn’t to delegate more but to delegate more effectively.

Delegation is not a quality like “demonstrating integrity.” Honest, ethical, and legal behavior is always appropriate―delegation isn’t. Inappropriate or poorly executed delegation can do more harm than good.

Criteria for Delegation

A good place to start is to review the criteria for delegation. Why do it? There are 3 good reasons a leader should delegate work:

  1. To ensure the work is done at an appropriate level (closest to the customer, at the lowest cost, with access to the needed information, etc.).
  2. To free up your time to do other more important activities.
  3. To develop the people on your team.

Ideally, you want to include all 3 criteria. So, how do you know what to delegate and to whom?

Steps to Delegation

Step 1: Every job (no matter if it’s the CEO or the person greeting at the front desk) can be broken down into 3 to 5 major components. There are no exceptions to this rule! Identify the key 3 to 5 areas of your responsibility, and then list several activities you do to achieve success in each of these key areas.

For example, one area of responsibility for a customer service manager might be: Train new customer service representatives.

Activities to support that responsibility might be:

  • Orientation on email and voice mail communication
  • Dealing with angry customers
  • Researching information on shipment and delivery questions
  • Handling quality issues

Step 2: Look at each activity and ask yourself, “Is this developmental for me? Am I building skills that will be useful in the future? Am I learning more about this business or industry? Is this increasing my business acumen, building my skills, and expanding my understanding?” If the answers are all “No,” even if you enjoy doing these activities, it is not necessarily a good use of your time.

Step 3: I can assure you there are people on your team who think your job is more interesting than theirs. Some would like to have more responsibility, earn a larger raise, or maybe get a promotion. Is there anyone on your team you could delegate all or some of these tasks to and it would be very developmental for them? If so, this is an appropriate opportunity to delegate work.

No Dumping Allowed

Step 4: There is a difference between delegating and dumping work on people. Effective delegation requires orientation to the new assignment. To the person assuming the new responsibilities:   

  1. Communicate why he or she has been selected for this assignment.   
  2. Discuss how much time it will take and how to structure their schedule so there is time available for this additional work.
  3. Make sure they have access to needed information or know where to find it.
  4. Confirm that they feel like they have the authority to do the job.

If you follow these simple steps, you’ll free up time for yourself and you’re also engaging and developing people on your team.

That is a Win / Win.  And that is effective delegation.   

How many times have you been frustrated by people constantly seeking your advice or approval before taking action towards a goal?  You want them to make decisions.  You delegate the decision making to them, but they are reluctant.  Why.  And how do you get them to make responsible decisions without your having to look over their shoulders constantly?

Delegating and Growing

It’s called empowerment.  Many have tried, but few succeed.  That’s because the actual process for achieving empowerment is shrouded in psychological mystery.  One has only to look at the reasons people are hesitant to make decisions independent of supervisory overview.  Most people actually do want to make decisions on their own; but are hesitant because they don’t want to make mistakes.  No one does. 

I tend to think in analogies.  I see a person standing on the yellow line in the middle of the highway.  They want to make a decision and step off the line, but every time they do, an 18-wheeler comes whistling by causing them to jump back on the line.  They say, I’m not going to take the risk again unless you tell me exactly what I’m supposed to do….boss.  So, they keep coming back to the boss to seek approval and guidance before making any decision.  It’s much safer…albeit annoying to the boss who wants the employee to make the decision on their own.

What needs to be understood, however, is that empowered delegation is actually boundary management.  The reason people don’t make independent (empowered) decisions is that they don’t know where their boundaries are.  Where/when can they make independent decisions and when do they need to check with the boss. 

True Empowerment

To achieve true empowerment, the boss and the employee must sit down together and decide several things.  First, what’s the goal/objective.  Secondly, based on the employee’s skills and experience, what are the ranges within which the person can make independent decisions.  Ranges in terms of resources they can use (money, people, technology, etc.), timeframes within which the goal must be achieved (as soon as possible but no further than the end of this month), quality of the outcome (must meet these specs), etc.  The more skilled a person is, the wider the range/ leeway the boss is going to give them regarding these parameters.  The newer the employee, the narrower these ranges become forcing the employee to go to the boss before making a decision allowing for coaching and skill building by the boss.  The boss’s job is to create multiple lanes on the highway so they employee is more likely to step off the center line and make independent decisions within the agreed upon ranges for each of the parameters.  Once you reward the employee for taking the risk of making independent decisions within the range, then they are more likely to make it a habit.

Now that you have them moving in the right direction and making decisions within agreed upon parameters, you can keep the process on track by setting up process checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, you check what their progress is towards the goal.  If they’re on track, you can reward them.  If they’re off track you can discuss ways to get back on track by determining if the holdup is due to an employee motivational issue of a lack of skill issue.  In either case tweaking some of the parameters may become necessary to fix the problem.  It’s a team effort driven by the psychological need to make successful decisions and complete goals within a pre-approved decision-making structure.

Enjoy your newly recovered lost time.

About Harvey Robbins

Harvey Robbins has been a licensed psychologist and award-winning author and consultant for over 40 years. Since 1982, he has been the president of Robbins & Robbins, a company shaped on psychology principles to coach leaders and train business teams.

Before becoming a consultant, Dr. Robbins served as a personnel research psychologist for the Federal Government and was in executive leadership positions with Fortune 500 companies, including Honeywell and Burlington Northern. He is also a Fellow at the Executive Development Center at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and a sought-after speaker at conferences and events locally and abroad.

His clients include American Express, Mayo Clinic, Nabisco, Toro, the IRS, the CIA, the US Secret Service, and many others.