The most difficult transition for new managers is almost always from doing work, to seeing that work gets done—delegation.
Most of us are selected for management because we work hard. It’s more than a habit, it’s our personalities—it is who we are and impossible to change. When we see something that needs doing, we can’t help ourselves—we do it.
But that also forms the dead-end many of us hit. Instead of organizing our teams to do the work, we work longer and harder, doing all the important tasks ourselves and as much of the rest as we can.
Meanwhile, our willing and eager teammates are left on the bench, idly watching. They get only busywork, quickly become bored and discouraged, and never develop to their potential.
Motivated team members leave for more meaningful work and a chance to progress; the less motivated stay, settling into a routine of little responsibility, and accepting boredom as the price of a paycheck.
Our previously admirable inclination to do work now threatens to derail our careers. We work long hours and holidays just to keep our heads above water while our unmotivated teams accomplish less than they should.
Why do we work so hard to keep our teams from helping us?
Because we think it’s easier to do the work ourselves than to teach someone else. And, indeed, it does take time and effort to teach team members. But once they’ve got it, we’ve freed a recurring block of time to pursue other, often more important goals.
Because we fear it won’t be done right. Team members do make mistakes, especially while learning a new job. But eventually they’ll be able to do it as well as we do—better, if they do it more often.
Because we think they wouldn’t do it the way we would. And it’s true. Each person does things in their own way. But if they dependably get good results, their methods shouldn’t concern us. We might even discover a better way.
Because it feels awkward asking someone else to do something we could do ourselves. We forget that our team members don’t want to be on the sidelines. They want to Participate, contribute toward Objectives, and earn Respect. Being asked isn’t an imposition—it’s an honor, an expression of trust, an endorsement of abilities, and an opportunity to prove themselves.
Because we simply don’t know how to ask. We can’t find words we’re comfortable with.
Asking isn’t difficult.
M: Our victory celebration is Tuesday and we need someone to…. Who would like to volunteer?
Notice that Mike didn’t say, “I need someone to....” That would imply that the project and vision are his, and his people are simply his helpers. It’s a Team effort and team members share the Objectives.
Many responsibilities require skills or experience, or are ongoing, and deserve more thought than just asking for volunteers. We should assign these to the people most appropriate to handle or learn them.
M: Ed, we need someone to schedule maintenance on these machines to keep them operating smoothly. Would you be willing to handle that?
Most teams include several talented members who could handle almost any responsibility we give them. Delegating to them is tempting because they already know how to do the tasks and we know they’ll do them correctly and reliably.
But our goal is not to have the most capable people on our team do every task. These people are valuable, and our supply is limited; we should carefully plan the best use of their time.
In most cases, the appropriate person is the least valuable team member who can do it accurately and reliably. A task more experienced team members would consider busywork is often prized by less experienced team members as an opportunity to Participate, earn Respect, and Improve. In addition to conserving our developed talent for more important tasks, we help everyone grow and increase in value, building a stronger and more capable team.
Asking someone to take a responsibility because we trust them to do it well makes it almost irresistible.
M: Lisa, this report has to be accurate, and you’re excellent with details. Could you take it over for us?
Complex responsibilities often take time and training to turn over.
M: Cindy, you do a good job preparing the numbers for the monthly finance meeting, and you can answer questions about them better than I can. I’d like you to start going with me to that meeting. And, when you’re comfortable with it, I’d like you to be our representative there.
Responsibilities that require stretching are opportunities to Improve, earn Respect, and move up in the company.
Occasionally a team member will tell us they’re too busy. If they truly are busy with more important tasks, we should respect that and look for a more appropriate person.
However, sometimes they simply need our help in delegating downward.
M: I know you have a full schedule of responsibilities and I don’t want to overload you. Would it help if we considered which of your current responsibilities we might assign to someone else? You’re a star on our team and I’d like you to continue progressing in both skills and experience.
What tasks should be delegated?
Some great managers delegate virtually everything. They’re not lazy—they simply want to free themselves to solve problems, improve systems, coach team members, look for opportunities, pursue innovations, work on special projects, etc. These managers and their teams are often the most productive.
Other managers feel a few things should never be delegated; the list often includes personnel decisions, pay, budgets, preparing and running team meetings, and reports to higher ups. These are indeed important tasks and they need to be done correctly.
But many managers successfully delegate these too, especially as they move higher in the company. There are no fixed tasks for managers, and few that can’t be delegated. A manager is responsible for getting things done, not for doing them.
The most effective method for choosing what we should delegate is to...