We tend to look at delegation as a transaction — the proverbial passing of the torch — when, in practice, it should be more of a continuous and collaborative process. I like to think of delegation as a meal you enjoy together with the person you are delegating to. Done properly, the “meal” has three distinct phases that contribute to an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Phase I: Set The Table
Before preparing the meal, you must set the scene for effective delegation. This is when we do the preparatory work.
First, establish trust. Trust is the cornerstone of effective delegation. You can do everything else right, but without trust, any efforts to delegate will devolve into nitpicking, micromanagement and the loss of any efficiencies gained by delegation. Everything you do should create greater trust.
Determine which responsibilities to delegate. There’s a saying: “Only do what only you can do.” Pay attention to your unique talents and the responsibilities of your role and consider delegating items that can and should be done by others.
Decide who you will train and when. Because trust is the essential foundation of delegation, we often delegate to the people we trust most. But just because you trust someone, that doesn’t mean they are available or ready to handle a new responsibility. When saddled with too much, even our most trusted people can fail. Picking who to delegate to should start with capacity and capability. Next, be proactive. If you start delegating when you have a pressing need, you will likely fail. Delegation works best when people are trained well in advance. Effective delegators anticipate the need and begin the process early.
Establish shared values. As you prepare to delegate important responsibilities, you should be able to clearly articulate your values. If you can’t articulate acceptable boundaries, expect that you will still be called upon often to make judgment calls or to correct or adjust behavior.
Phase II: Enjoy The Meal
Don’t be seduced by the good feeling — the pressure release — of delegating an important or difficult responsibility. The pressure is not relieved, it is transferred. And if the delegated party is less capable, the pressure only increases. In order to enjoy the fruits of your labor, you will need to engage the person you are delegating to in a conversation.
Have realistic expectations. Make sure that the person being delegated to has a realistically achievable outcome as well as the time, capability and resources necessary to be successful.
Delegate an outcome rather than a task. Avoid communicating exactly how to do something, as everyone has a different way of working. Instead, articulate your intent and any general guidelines. Highlight why a particular task needs to get done, what success looks like, things to stay away from, values to adhere to and the experience the individual brings to the table. If after explaining your intent and the desired outcome, the party you delegate to can’t easily articulate the exact same definition of victory — and the way to measure it — you still have work to do.
Talk about motivation. A person’s reason for taking on a new responsibility may vary greatly from your own motivations. You may be motivated by accomplishing the collective business objective, but they may be motivated by personal notoriety or financial incentives. It is important to understand the motivations for each party involved for trust to continue and thrive.
Avoid micromanaging. Make sure to give the person you are delegating to the autonomy to use their own discretion. As long as intentions and values are aligned and victory is understood, this freedom will work to your advantage.
Phase III: Plan Your Next Meal
There are certain things you need to do to ensure that you can repeat the process and maintain the positive feelings from earlier meals, or delegations.
Offer encouragement and feedback. Positive reinforcement is great when learning something new. Make sure you recognize people when they do things right. It’s also essential to spend time observing and mentoring the person to whom you have delegated the responsibility. Watch them perform, review the performance together and provide constructive feedback.
Measure success. Accountability is essential, but the focus is often on results rather than the process. It is important to focus on learning, improving and adhering to values as well as results. If expectations have been set realistically, this is typically not difficult to enforce. Moreover, accountability should be fair, uniform and consistently enforced. Otherwise, shortcuts will be taken, the quality of the work will suffer and time will be wasted managing bad behavior and analyzing unpredictable results.
Eliminate barriers. For continued success, it is the delegator’s responsibility to ensure directives do not conflict with existing incentives. Eliminate barriers and red tape, such as access to additional resources or complex bureaucratic allocation processes, or be prepared for results that are inconsistent with your expectations.
If you follow these steps, you will do more than delegate tasks. You will empower people within your organization to take responsibility, achieve outcomes and create positive forward momentum.