Leadership: Delegation the route to improved team performance

Why can’t I delegate?

Teams work most effectively when each member understands what is needed from them, they are equipped to deliver and they feel trusted. Leaders of all kinds of teams will at some time or another find out that they cannot do everything and will have to delegate. This realisation simply deals with the “why” of delegation. Once we realise this we just have to ask when, how and to whom we delegate.

People have many reasons why they feel they cannot delegate. Excuses include, “I can do it quicker myself”, “I have no-one that can do it” or even, “that is really a senior management task”. When you hear yourself saying any of these things you need stop take a deep breath and consider the following.

  1.  You might be able to take this task on today and get it done quicker this time but can you afford to do it again next week, the week after and the week after that?
  2. Will you be able to do it to high standard every time given everything else you need to do?
  3. Will the task take on less importance and attention as you get distracted by “more important” tasks and then fall off the radar?
  4. If you take on this task what will you no longer have time to do?
  5. What are you going to do if more tasks like this crop up and add yet more to your load?
  6. If you try to work harder and longer to get this task done how will your stress level rise?
  7. What will your staff feel like if you only ever give them menial unimportant tasks?
  8. If you are on vacation, seconded to another team or ill how will the team deliver on targets if you hold all the important tasks close to your chest?
  9. When you are ready to move up the ladder, who will be left to step into your shoes and keep team continuity?
  10. Have you unintentionally built a wall between you and your team that isolates from your team?
  11. Do you hate your job now because you never feel you’re off the treadmill?

Let’s see if we can stop the rot at number 1 and also create a new vision of what it is to delegate effectively in order to improve your team performance at the same time as enriching your work life and theirs too.

So what does “delegate” mean?

Dictionaries give three main definitions of delegate.

General: Grant of authority by one party (YOU) to another (your REPORT) for agreed purpose(s). Under the legal concept of vicarious liability, the delegator remains responsible for the delegatee’s acts or omissions in carrying out the purpose of the delegation.

Agency: Transfer of an agent’s right to act for the principal (such as from a contractor to a sub-contractor) that can take place only (1) with the permission of the principal, (2) where it is customary, or (3) where it is necessary for the performance of the entrusted duty.

Management: Sharing or transfer of authority and the associated responsibility, from an employer or superior (who has the right to delegate) to an employee or subordinate.

Delegate comes originally from the latin “Delegatus” – A person chosen or commissioned: a deputy, agent, representative, trustee.

The common elements to delegation appear to be: In order to achieve an agreed purpose for which you remain explicitly responsible you have transferred to or shared with your direct report some authority and implicit responsibility. You have delegated a trusted duty to a trusted colleague.

So, if we deconstruct this what do we get? You have to:

  1. Trust and be trusted.
  2. Be accountable ultimately but be prepared to share some responsibility and from this also share the plaudits and the of course the criticism.

The big question is what is stopping you from trusting and sharing? It comes from quite reasonable fears, fears that we all share at some time or another. We are trained by life to fear criticism because everything we do is criticised by parents, teachers, bosses, police, politicians in fact everyone. To see what I mean take a look at the following

  • 10 x 3 = 30
  • 6 x 4 = 24
  • 11 x 2 = 22
  • 5 x 5 =26
  • 8 x 7 = 56

Now, what is your first observation? Was it that 5 x 5 does not equal 26? If it was then I have to tell you that you are completely normal everyone does the same thing. You see we are all hardwired to see the tiniest difference from the norm, things that stand out, don’t fit. It’s a crucial part of our survival mechanism.

However, if that is all we hear we become afraid of making mistakes because they will be seen and we will have been deemed to have failed and with that come consequences. We have become risk averse over the millennia. So, what is one way you can insulate yourself from the consequence of mistakes?  You can avoid intentionally increasing the potential for failure and criticism by not trusting others to do things for which we are responsible (i.e. delegation). After all, if you don’t believe that your direct reports can do the task as well as you the risks and consequences are high and you don’t want to be held accountable for their mistakes. So, you don’t delegate.

Of course your direct report is also hardwired to avoid mistakes and their consequences (demotion & job loss) and will avoid taking on extra responsibility unless they feel competent in the skills needed to achieve success with the task you want to give them. So, we have a vicious cycle. You don’t trust – you don’t delegate – your report doesn’t get the experience – they don’t feel valued – they don’t trust you and you don’t trust them etc. etc.

Here is the route to the solution; train and mentor your direct reports giving them all of the skills required and the confidence they need to ensure success – you then grow trust in them and their abilities. The quit pro quo of course is that they also build trust in you and their belief in your confidence in them.

This takes patience and hard work. Together you and your team need to identify what skills they need to develop in order to achieve the team objectives. You will need to leverage the support of senior management to fund the training (builds trust). At first you will need to work alongside your reports supporting them to do the new tasks. Once they have the task in hand then you must let go and simply take on a watching supportive brief.

Trust is a wonderful thing. If you tell someone to increase their productivity they can only go so far before they hit the buffers. If on the other hand they learn and own new skills, if you include them in the decision making process and give authentic trust based upon action not just words their productivity and that of your team will automatically increase. My experience repeated many times over is that people in this mindset will return all of your investment with a great premium that was never asked for.

Be courageous and learn why, how, when and who to delegate.

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About Gary R Coulton

I use my 30 years experience as teacher, learner, facilitator, mentor, trainer, manager, leader, biomedical researcher, intrapreneur , executive and sports coach to create “teams for change and re-invention”. I have developed the concept of “Adaptive Intelligence” to support individuals, teams and organisations in their quest to understand and take advantage of the “Change Paradox”. I have created a range of innovative courses and training systems including “How to achieve like an elite thinking/business athlete”. I live in North Surrey, UK with my Wife and Daughter and enjoy coaching Kayak paddling technique, travelling and learning a new thing each day.
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2 Responses to Leadership: Delegation the route to improved team performance

  1. Gary, your post makes some great points. I have a number of leaders I coach who struggle with delegation. Why? Many times because it is easier (initially) not to. As you point out, I can do it faster, better, etc. It is easier not better. When we are placed in a leadership position we are evaluated more for how I team performs and what they are capable of then our own “doing.” The most important thing about leading others is trust, and nothing builds trust quicker than increasing their responsibilities with task(s) they can perform. “I trust you to do this” is what this activity does and represents a great way to leverage your people and to increase productivity. In the end it is about building capacity.

    Best…Jim

  2. Great post, Doc Gary! You really put your finger on the pulse of the problem AND solution. When you said,”Once we realise this we just have to ask when, how and to whom we delegate,” I was thinking how so often the answer rests within our own work team, but we have to ask them to discover the best candidate to relieve us of yet one more task. (It’s akin to the time-saving cliche of “teach them how to fish rather than delivering a fish every time the need for a fish arrives.” In this case, let someone else do the fishing. Holly

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