The 5 Stages of Delegation
Like it or not, your productivity matters. The good news is, if you’re reading this article, you have reached that lofty stage in your life where you can make others do your work. But believe it or not: the simple fact that you can put off your work to others doesn’t mean you’re doing it right – ordo it as much as you should.
Let’s make you and your fellow managers master-delegators by exploring the 5 essential stages of delegation.
In order to analyze the journey of delegation, we will stick to the following path
The first step of delegation is…not delgating at all.
Anyone with authority to delegate has on occasion found themselves in a situation where the best way forward seemed not to delegate at all: Instead of assigning a job to a member of your team, you simply did it yourself.
Managers at the precontemplation stage of delegation are not even thinking about delegating. They may not consider it an issue, or they believe that others who draw attention to the problem are exaggerating.
The reasons for not delegating are as diverse as they are subjective. But who are we kidding? Most often, delegation fails because
- We initiate it too late and delegation is not an option anymore, given the deadline we’re facing (resigned precontemplator)
- We don’t want to invest in the laborious process of instructing someone else (resistant precontemplator)
- We simply take the convenient shortcut of thinking: Only I can do it! (self-important precontemplator)
The group that ranks highest in “under-delegation” are those with recent promotions: risers who want to prove how great they are and therefore don’t exercise good judgment in managing others.
But we do not judge. If you find yourself comfortable at stage 1 of the delegation journey, here’s “how to not delegate” best:
- Get your act together and complete your tasks on time. (Time-management with AllActivity might be a good place to start.)
- Put a positive spin on your decision not to delegate (don’t blame the incompetence of others, and instead broadcast loudly that you’re taking one for the team).
- Consider you might be even better in another role. As a result, maybe, just maybe, delegation is worth a try after all.
At some point, everyone needs to delegate something. When did you fail to delegate? When you’re ready to admit the relevance of this question, read on below.
At the contemplative stage, people become aware of the real-world consequences of underdelegation. They get anxious about missing deadlines and might despair over their workload. Finally, if all goes well, they begin to think about possible solutions and ultimately commit to delegating more.
In order to understand the triggers for this second stage, consider a typical story on how to fail with delegation:
When business exploded, delegation was not an option. And with no kids and a weekend relationship, I was proud to spend 7 days a week at my desk and to complete every project on time.
While not a lifestyle for everyone, plenty of business owners and managers still work that way. At some point, however, things might change and even fanatic workaholics may find themselves with too much work and too little time.
Does the following sound familiar?
- “He has too much work, he’s just not reliable anymore.”
- “We expect results on time – can she still deliver?”
The creeping realization that you assumed responsibility but are unable to complete your tasks properly, on time or at all can be disheartening. And with an ever-growing mountain of assignments, there comes the insight that there is no way out. Precisely because you failed to delegate in the first place, you have dug a deep hole, from which it is very hard to escape.
Add the necessity to pretend to others – your customers, your family – that you are still in control, and you can imagine the turmoil you find yourself in … The metaphor of a pot of boiling water, lid on, is not far-fetched.
If you’ve experienced this feeling before and you were lucky enough to maintain some level of self-reflection, you’ve also asked yourself this question: what next? With too many tasks to complete, you will often literally not know where to begin. Customarily, though, there are three ways forward:
a) Digging a deeper hole
b) Burning out
c) Getting help (i.e. subscribing to AllActivity and engaging in delegation).
If you’re like most people, you will go back and forth between a) and b), before finally, hopefully, settling on c).
At the action stage, people have committed to change and are actively taking steps to delegate. While this is great, there’s a catch.
Too often, when we first dabble in delegation, we don’t get the balance right:
- We delegate too much. Delegation exists to help you get work done, but it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook entirely. If you just push off everything to your underlings, that doesn’t make you a great manager. So, learn to distinguish what you can delegate and what must stay in your court.
- We pick the wrong person to delegate to. First-time delegators will often hand over their tasks to the next available person. “Who can help me?” often turns into “Who is available right now?” and we miss the chance to evaluate the skills and – importantly – the seniority of potential helpers.
- We delegate without giving proper instructions. Don’t get us wrong: we’re not thinking of the delegator not giving instructions at all. It’s hard to imagine a situation where a manager forgets about those entirely. But it is a common phenomenon for those still learning about delegation to not assess which specific instructions the individual across the table needs. And keep in mind: while a comment like “Well, it’s sink or swim around here!” may sound cool over afterwork drinks, it definitely kills opporunities for value creation.
Does any of this sound familiar? Well, don’t feel too bad! It’s the nature of learning how to delegate in 5 stages that everyone experiences all or some of the above at certain point. When you are certain you have reached this stage and you’re ready to face the music, read on!
“You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.”
And so, all hell breaks loose. Stage 4 on your journey to become a great delegator consists of two main parts:
- The realization that somewhere, something definitely went wrong.
- The temptation to blame anybody but yourself.
What can you do to improve this experience?
- Well, one secret is to not wait for others to tell you about the results. In other words, when you have just started your journey as a delegator, keep a close eye on what’s happening. Definitely check the work before you release it to outsiders – that should go without saying.
- But great delegation is more than pushing off work to others and checking if they got it right. Stay involved after you handed over a task, and make sure that the person to whom you are delegating doesn’t steer too far off course and perhaps even learns something along the way. You remain responsible for both the work result and the team you are bringing in.
If things do go sideways, however, you can still take away good things – or risk additional downside.
Most people, when they first fail at delegation, will intuitively jump to the conclusion: “I should have known, I need to do it myself! ”. While self-reflection is a great start, that statement is definitely wrong.
First of all, it bears the tremendous risk that the wanna-be delegator falls back into the original, bad habit of not delegating at all.
Second, by blaming anybody but yourself, you’re looking in exactly the wrong direction. Remember, delegation never fails because the person to whom you delegated screwed up. Even if she is utterly incompetent, it is still you who selected her. It’s the same as with bad employees. Blame HR, not the person whom you hired.
No matter whether you only think to yourself that it’s the other person’s fault or, heaven forbid, you even declare that to the outside world, remember that your best way to control damage is to be better about delegation in the future. By contrast, trash-talking the idea of delegation helps no one and will only serve to make your work environment a toxic hellhole.
So, always take the opportunity to provide constructive feedback and let that conversation be the first step towards the next, more successful round of delegation.
Are you on board? Then you’re ready for the final lesson on becoming a great delegator
The last lesson on your journey to delegating well is also the hardest. It is counter-intuitive and will make you wonder: if that’s what delegation means, why did I sign up in the first place?
The point is that instead of saving you time, initially, becoming great at the art of delegation is a lot of work. All the potential lapses and mistakes we mentioned in the previous chapters factor into this, so here’s the definitive list of things to learn:
- Find the right moment to delegate. One of the key insights: if there’s not even enough time for you to complete the task yourself, why would you think someone else could do it and still meet the deadline? So, delegate early!
- Get on top of your knowledge management. Don’t keep secrets and learn to efficiently pass on any detail that’s required for perfect execution. Keep documentation!
- Assume nothing. It’s your job to teach your team to ask the right questions. As long as they don’t have that skill, you must not assume they have the same background knowledge as you.
- Check and double check the results. Review the work delivered to you, and learn about what worked and what didn’t.
- Provide useful feedback. Don’t forget that you’re a leader for a reason. You didn’t get here just to push off work to others. Your role is to do your job well, and to help others grow.
Research shows that empowered employees who are routinely challenged with tasks “above their paygrade” put in more effort and grow faster as team members. And that’s what delegation is all about: accomplish more with the help of others!
This article is meant for people on their way to become great delegators. If you find yourself stuck at any one of the 4 early stages, keep trying, there’s a bright future ahead.
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