- Case Study Delegation is tough. Most managers find delegating intensely frustrating and confusing, resulting in little or no progress and bad feelings all around. Too often managers delegate poorly (too quickly or too slowly) and, when the attempts fail, rationalize that, “I’d better just do everything myself” or “that person just couldn’t cut it.” Take the case of a small, successful law firm called Doe & Counsel, or DC. DC specializes in representing children in civil actions and is owned by Lowell Doe. Lowell owns the stock with his three “partners,” attorneys who participate in profits but rarely make decisions of substance. All attorneys and employees are top-notch legal performers. In fact, Lowell’s personal performance in court is phenomenal. He wins 90% of his cases and brings in over 40% of the firm’s revenue.Lowell makes virtually all the decisions, from which cases to take to what flavor coffee goes in the company pot. He spends almost half his time tending to internal matters.Lowell, as you might imagine, is not great to work for. His employees feel they can “never measure up” to his expectations. Lowell once delegated all operational authority to a partner but took it back after a month because the partner made a “mistake” (meaning he chose a different way than Lowell would have). When Lowell is out of town, no one is willing to make necessary decisions and risk his wrath. This makes clients who need immediate answers furious and results in piles of work on Lowell’s desk, overloading him upon his return.
Learning to Delegate
Lowell is a manager in need of delegation, a process of changing relationships with his partners from a reactive to an active, customer-responsive approach. At first glance, Lowell’s autocratic style seems diametrically opposed to delegation. Yet, in my experience, most managers cognitively realize the need to use time more effectively in other productive ways. They’ll say things like, “Sure, I know I need to delegate more. I could be out there getting a hell of a lot more business and spending more time with the family, but when I depend on someone, l am consistently disappointed. They just don’t have the same commitment to the company.”
So, the desire is there but the reality of actually doing it brings rationalizations of low staff loyalty. Managers can learn to delegate if they first realize that the illusion of control they have created is dysfunctional, meaning it just doesn’t work.
Key to this realization is understanding misconceptions about delegation.
- Saying you are delegating does not make it so. You have to DO it. Talking about delegation and never doing it will make everyone, including you, frustrated. You cannot delegate and still make all the decisions. That’s like saying you vote and never going to the polls.
- Delegation does not mean abdication. Even when you are delegating, you always retain ultimate authority; you are simply choosing not to use it in all situations.
- Delegation is a process, not a single act. Developing authority in others is an ongoing transfer, not an act. Delegation is a shaping process that reinforces desired behaviors. Immediate delegation will be quite imperfect. To delegate too quickly almost assures the new decision-maker will not meet their manager’s expectations.
- “Seasoning” is not necessarily a prerequisite to delegation. This myth assumes people are like hams that must be smoked over a long period before they can be used. While it is true certain desired experiences take time to accumulate, someone who has potential now is worth your time to train in the areas where they can contribute now.
- Delegation does not mean others will decide exactly as you would in all situations. You can’t clone yourself. While you can generally set limits for expected outcomes, others will vary in their perceptions, background, experience, ideas and preferences. Over time, you serve as a model. Employees observe you and take from your style to produce, and desired behavior and values. Structuring Delegation The first step is to assess what decisions are made and who makes them, using not just your own judgments but the opinions of key managerial people and, more importantly, clerical people. Clerical people are the conduit through which most all organizational information flows. If there are logjams, bottlenecks, or other problems keeping the organization from maximum effectiveness, they know. Ask in which areas you are helpful and in which areas you are part of the problem. You will be surprised at the perceptive responses. Some of them will directly confront your management style. Be objective and open to ideas in this step. Don’t dismiss an idea too quickly because it involves the possibility of you having to change. Next, negotiate a small scope of delegated authority to a key person. Don’t do this in five minutes. Take time to think it through as if you were the employee to which the authority was delegated. How would you like it to work?Overcome an employee’s fear of failure by putting them in initial situations where the down-side risk is small (for example, authorizing office supply expenses). As a person masters these tasks (which may come fairly quickly), the scope of authority can expand and the employees confidence level will be better prepared to expand with it. The key is involving employees: state the desired outcomes of a decision area, negotiate limits, and check for clarity (for example, make sure the employee can re-state in his or her own words what the expectations are).
- Structure definite time goals for transfer of decision-making. Setting dates, even though they may change, establishes commitment from both you and your people.
Finally, and most importantly, expect mistakes, and treat them as learning experiences, not as forecasts that a person will ultimately fail. Let’s face it, no one always makes the best, most accurate decisions. Demanding perfection from others is unrealistic. We are all human and if we are not making mistakes, we are not making decisions. When someone makes an error, resist the temptation to snatch authority back and do it yourself or second-guess. Talk about what was done correctly as well as what could have been improved. Work to build up their knowledge and confidence, not scare them. Your patience and a willingness to teach will make successes out of your employees and free up time to build the business.
Think of employees like thoroughbred horses on a race track. The more times they go around the track, the more money the company makes. The fewer obstacles they have in their way, the more times they can go around the track. A manager can’t gallop very far if he or she is running every aspect of track operation as well as participating in the race. Focus on the structured transfer of decision-making and you will go faster and have more time. People will go faster, too, and take your team to the winner’s circle.
George M. Smart, Jr., MBA, is CEO of Strategic Development. Since 1981, George has worked with over 250 corporate, government, and non-profit organizations. With an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, George has also received training at the Center for Creative Leadership, the NTL Institute, and the N. C. State University Training and Development program. He was a Chapter President and charter National Advisor for Chapters in the American Society for Training and Development and has been featured in Business Leader, Training and Development Magazine, and Triangle Business Journal.