Has this ever happened to you?
You decided to delegate an important task to a subordinate. Perhaps your first inclination was to do it yourself. But then you remembered that leaders need to develop their people, and one important way to do so is to give them assignments that will stretch them. Assignments that make them think. Assignments that are not easy, are contain some risk. And so, with a small amount of trepidation and unease, you called Fred, one of your more talented and experience people, into your office. And handed an important task over to him.
Now, of course, you didn’t simply hand him a folder and say “Go for it!” No, you applied all that touchy-feely stuff you learned in your last management charm school about buttering people up and making them feel good about themselves so that they actually do what you want them to do. So you started by expressing your confidence in Fred’s intelligence and experience, and, ultimately, his capability to figure out what needed to be done and do it. And complete everything in a week’s time. So far, great.
But, of course, the story doesn't end there. In less than three days, Fred’s back in your office. And he’s all smiles. He’s certain that you’re going to be overjoyed with the results of this little project. Problem is, the report he gives you has no semblance to what you expected. In fact, it’s way off base. So you tell him what’s wrong, and give him a few more guidelines. And a few more expressions of your confidence in his abilities. The good news is that Fred still has two days to meet the original deadline, and you’re both pretty certain that this little course correction will do the trick.
Forty-eight hours later, once again, you and Fred are in your office going over the project report. This new report is a bit closer to what you need. Unfortunately, it’s still not usable, and now you’re out of time. You’re frustrated. Fred’s frustrated. You take the work home and stay up most of the night ripping it apart and re-doing it. Finally, you’re okay with the finished product. But you’re not okay with Fred. And he’s pretty unhappy with you.
Unfortunately, what happened is quite common. You did not:
· Envision and communicate the desired outcome clearly
· Determine your subordinate’s ability and willingness to perform the task
· Utilize the appropriate leadership style based upon your subordinate’s ability and willingness to perform this specific task
Each of these three steps is essential for effective delegation.
Envision and Communicate the Desired Outcome Clearly
I’ll never forget working as an Education Manager for IBM in Dallas. In IBM, we had interesting but confusing job titles. Whenever I met someone in an IBM office, they asked me what I did. After a while, I gave up on reciting my title. I simply told people the name of my most famous trainer. “Ah hah!” everyone would say. “So you’re Charlie’s boss!” And that, in essence, was my job. Charlie had been in his role for years, and would be there long after I was promoted and moved on.
It took me a while to catch on to this. After all, I was a manager and I thought I knew best. So one day I called Charlie into my office and explained in detail what I wanted him to do on a particular project. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look, Sheila, if you tell me what to do and how to do it, if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be your fault. But if you tell me what results you want, and allow me to do it my way, if it doesn’t work it’s going to be my fault.” After I recovered from his directness, I took a deep breath and say, “Okay.” And we proceed to discuss the results and how we would measure success.
You see, Charlie caught me. I hadn’t actually considered what I wanted. I was only focused on how I wanted it done. Amazing how often that happens.
Now of course, if you’re dealing with a subordinate who is inexperienced, you may need to define the desired outcome and then teach them a process to achieve that outcome. Which leads to the next essential step for effective delegation.
Determine your Subordinate’s Ability and Willingness to Perform the Task
When managers consider a subordinate’s ability to perform, they most often evaluate their ability to perform their job. The requirement here is to focus more narrowly. Rather than determining overall job performance, effective delegation requires determining the ability to perform the specific task at hand.
For example, a highly successful engineer might be well-suited to perform almost any task that requires data gathering and analysis. But when asked to mentor a new engineer, they could be totally at sea. The task of mentoring is very different from data gathering and analysis. A savvy manager will recognize that their expert engineer could be a complete neophyte when it comes to mentoring.
To further complicate matters, the engineer may not want to be a mentor. They might not be willing to perform the assigned task. Nine times out of ten, a subordinate will not tell their manager that they don’t want to do something. Instead, they couch their unwillingness as a lack of ability, time or resources. And there’s no simple litmus test to distinguish willingness issues from ability issues. Managers need to be aware that both may be present, and carefully probe to determine what’s actually going on. Remember, if someone is not willing to perform, no amount of training will motivate them. Training can address ability issues, but not willingness issues.
Utilize the Appropriate Leadership Style
Once you have a handle your subordinate’s level of ability and willingness to perform the task at hand, you can utilize the appropriate leadership style. Hershey and Blanchard, in their book “Situational Leadership”, explain four different leadership styles and their appropriate application.
· Telling Style – giving specific task directions and closely supervising work
· Selling Style – explaining task directions in a supporting and persuasive way
· Coaching Style – emphasizing shared ideas and participative decisions
· Delegating Style – allowing the follower to take responsibility for task decisions
When tackling something new, a subordinate is typically unable to perform the task. When the subordinate is unable to perform, the manager’s most appropriate styles are Telling and Selling. Over time, as the subordinate build their ability to perform a task, the manager will switch to the more appropriate styles of Coaching and Delegating.
An example can be helpful to illustrate the progression through these styles. When you teach a child to ride a two-wheeled bicycle for the first time, you start out by telling them what to do. “Put your feet on the pedals. Put your hands on the handle bars.” And you might help them place their hands and feet in the right place. You hold onto them and give them instructions. “Look straight ahead. Begin pedaling.” Note than your communication is all about the task. All about what to do.
As the child learns to pedal and begins moving, you might begin explaining why. By selling them on the right behavior. “Okay. Keep your head up, that way you won’t fall over. And keep your weight centered so that you’ll go straight. When you turn the handlebars to the right, the bicycle will turn to the right. Lean into the turn so that you keep your balance.” In the selling mode there’s a lot more communication. And it’s much more about them, than about the bicycle itself. More about supporting them in their learning. And you continue to hold onto them. They’re not able to operate on their own yet.
Then comes the magical moment when you let go! When they cross from unable to able. This can be really scary. Now that you are no longer physically supporting them, it’s critical to verbally support them. Lots of feedback. And constructive coaching. “Lookin’ good! That’s right, keep facing straight ahead. Oh, no – don’t look at me! You’re getting it. How do you feel? Is this fun? What would you like to try next?”
Finally, the new bicyclist is ready to take over. And you begin delegating. “Looks like you’re ready to bicycle on your own! Go for it! You have my permission to ride during daylight hours in our neighborhood. Have a great time!”
Everyone Has Their Favorite Styles
For some managers, delegation can’t come too quickly. They have no patience for selling or coaching They start out telling, with step-by-step details, and then leap to delegating prematurely.
Other managers enjoy the relationship aspect of selling and coaching, and hate the other styles. They want to be involved and work together. Unfortunately, their subordinates can be lost when they need the clear, specific directions of the telling style. And their subordinates become irritated when they want be left alone, and their manager never fully lets go and delegates.
So, here’s your challenge. Instead of choosing your favorite style, choose the most appropriate style. Understand your subordinate’s ability and willingness to perform specific tasks. Be prepared to explain the desired outcome and enable them to grow. Enabling others to learn and contribute is the mark of a great leader.