Category Archives: Delegation Skills

At Every Level of Work

The biggest problem in performance management, for most companies, is focusing on the work. Many managers focus on personality characteristics or communication breakdowns thinking if someone has the right information and the right personality, performance management is a no brainer. What is missing is an understanding of the work. What is the work?

Work is not completing a task. Work is the decision making and problem solving related to the task. The most important conversation between every manager and team member is, “In completing this task, what decisions do you have to make and what problems do you have to solve?”

And, there is appropriate decision making and appropriate problem solving at every level of work.

Learning From Mistakes

Janet was not convinced. “But, if I know they will make a mistake, what if I can’t afford the screw-up? Perhaps, I forgot to tell you that we work in a nuclear facility and this delegation has to do with moving a dollop of plutonium from one reactor to the next.”

I smiled, knowing the most hazardous waste in the place was some scrap stainless steel. “You are correct,” I acknowledged. “Picking the right person for a delegation does have everything to do with risk management. If the stakes are too high, then you may have to forego a learning experience to get the job done. But if this dollop of plutonium turns out to be a dollop of vanilla ice cream, then the risk is low. The lower the risk, the more I can allow for mistakes and learning.”

“So, picking the person depends on managing the risk. That makes more sense,” Janet nodded.

“Think about how we allow people to learn to fly commercial aircraft. They have to make mistakes to learn, yet the risk is very high. We can’t have people crashing multi-million dollar aircraft.”

Janet smiled. “Enter the simulator?”

“Exactly. People learn best from their mistakes.”

Said He Was Too Busy

“I was surprised,” said Janet. “Barry is my best guy. I just assigned him a task and he said he was too busy, told me to go find someone else. He always does such a great job. I thought he would be the perfect person.”

“Who else could you delegate to?” I asked.

“Well, there is Simon and Rachel. But what if they screw it up?” Janet scrunched her nose. She didn’t like the idea.

“Janet, what is the purpose for your delegation? Are you looking to save yourself some time or are you looking to develop some of your team members?”

Janet knew it was a loaded question. “Okay, so I am trying to develop some of my team members. I know it’s a learning process.” It was the kind of unenthusiastic, politically correct response I knew I would get.

“Good answer. You must have attended the seminar,” I chided. “Look, Janet, of course they are going to screw it up. Tell me. Do people learn more from doing something perfectly or making a mistake?”

Janet wasn’t sure where I was going with this. “I suppose people learn more from making a mistake.”

“Exactly. If delegation is your most powerful people development tool, then part of delegation is people making mistakes. Count on it. Plan for it. Budget your time for it. But remember that it’s still worth it. That’s what learning is all about.”

Everybody’s Busy

Crystal looked across the table with a grimace on her face. She had a project to delegate and just returned from a circle of the office looking for a candidate.

“As I walked around, everyone looked so busy,” she said.

I smiled. “And you let that fool you?”


“The fact that everyone looked so busy was a trap you set for yourself.”

“A trap?” Crystal was curious, but she wasn’t sure she would like the answer.

“As you walked around looking to hand this project out, what was your purpose?”

“Well, it’s a project I have been doing over and over for the past two years. It would save me a couple of hours a week if I could find someone to do it for me,” she replied.

“So, your primary motivation was to save yourself some time?” I didn’t wait for the answer. “So, tell me, what’s the major benefit for the person you would delegate this to?”

Crystal hadn’t thought about this, but she responded quickly. “Well, they would gain a new skill.”

“And what else?” Over the next few minutes, Crystal made a list of 12 benefits to the team member. The list included:

  • A sense of accomplishment.
  • Feeling a greater part of the team.
  • Feeling more valuable to the team.
  • A sense of contribution.

“Crystal, do any of these things have to do with saving you time?” I asked.

“No. Most of these things have to do with challenge and development.”

“So, get out of your time trap. I want you to make the circle again, but this time, think about the person who would see this as a positive step in their professional development.”

Crystal didn’t move. “You know, I don’t have to make the circle. I already know who needs this project. You’re right, she is busy, but this would be important to her.”

Mama Told Me

“My mother taught me that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself,” proclaimed Judith, repeating the sage advice she learned in her youth.

“Interesting,” I replied. “Why do you think your mother said that?”

“Well, people just never do things the way we expect them to be done.”

“And, why is that?” I wanted to know. “Why do you think they might miss the quality standard?”

“I don’t know,” Judith replied. “I tell ’em what to do, they just fall short.”

“Did you explain what the project should look like when it’s done?” I pressed.

Judith paused. “I just told them to get it done.”

“So you told them what to do, but not how well or by when?”

“Shoudn’t they be able to figure that out?” Judith sighed.

“I assume they did figure it out, it’s just what they figured is different than what you figured. Didn’t your mother also tell you if you don’t like what’s for dinner, you should say something sooner?”

Gauge the Risk

Aaron was in a pickle. He was a firm believer that, as a manager, delegation was his most powerful people development tool, but he was uncomfortable with the possible outcome. If this delegation failed, it could be disastrous. His dilemma was “who?” Who should he pick to head this project?

His top gun was reliable, but always overloaded with work. Aaron wanted to spread the responsibility to a young, up and comer, but this would be a stretch, with the distinct possibility of failure.

Selecting the right team member is the absolute toughest step in delegation. The manager can do everything else correctly, but if the wrong person is chosen, success may be fleeting.

Selecting the right person is a process of risk management. If the purpose of delegation is people development, and understanding that people learn the most from their mistakes, risk management becomes the rule of thumb to determine who gets the nod.

If you work in a nuclear power plant, you have to pick your top gun every time. If you run an ice cream shop, you can afford the occasional misstep. Gauge the risk, then pick the person.

Friday at 5:00p

Kyle wheeled around into the sun, cupping his hand over his eyes to see who was calling his name. It was Barry, his manager. Friday afternoon at 5:00, and it was Barry. Again. Kyle already knew what was coming.

“Hey, Kyle,” said Barry as he stepped up his pace. “Listen, I was just wondering if you could do me a favor on Monday. I have this project that I’ve been trying to wrap-up and I am just jammed. I know it would be extra work for you, but I really need your help. It has to be finished by noon on Monday and I just can’t get it done.”

And Barry wondered why Kyle was never excited about things he tried to delegate.

There are two purposes for delegation. One is time management, the other is people development. Delegating for time management is okay, but short sighted. The longer term purpose for delegation is people development.

So, if the true purpose for delegation is development, it is important enough to schedule a real meeting, with committed time in an appropriate room over a conference table. Plan ahead.

If you haven’t planned ahead, and it’s Friday at 5:00pm, you already blew it. Just go home. Have a beer. Come back next week with a better plan.

Short List

I watched Vincent drop everything on his desk and excuse himself. From the corner window, he spotted the postal carrier bringing a bag of mail from her truck. Vincent was a senior partner in the firm and he was on his way to the reception desk to perform his daily ritual, sorting the mail. Twenty minutes later, he would return, announcing that eight clients had sent in payments that day. Sure enough, he had neatly stacked the eight envelopes for the receptionist to deliver to accounting.

Think about something you do that meets the following characteristics, make a quick list –

  • A task that you perform repetitively.
  • A task that you enjoy doing.
  • A task that is important to the organization.

I often hear the refrain, “I’m not really sure what I can delegate to someone else.” Now, take a look at your list. Any task that you perform on a repetitive basis is a candidate. You may have overlooked this task because it is something that you enjoy. You may have even justified this task as important to the organization. Look at your list again. What can you delegate?

Learning Something New

What stops us from learning?

It’s not the complexity of the content, or how much there is to learn. The obstacles to learning most often exist in the head of the learner. Obstacles are more about beliefs and assumptions than the details of what has to be learned.

We learn to delegate effectively, not by learning a new delegation model, but by ridding ourselves of the assumption, if you want it done right, do it yourself. We hold back on sharing problem solving, not because the team members lacks the skills, but because there is a lack of trust. We hold back on sharing decision making, not because the team member is unable to make the decision, but because we, as managers, have always made that judgment call.

What stops us from learning is often, something inside our own head.

Growing Pains

“He was my best supervisor, and, now, it’s like he went brain-dead,” Marie complained. “James always followed things by the book. A stickler with rules. Some of our services are life and death, so rules are good. But, now, he questions, pushes back on certain decisions.”

“What else has changed?” I asked.

“When he pushes back, he is unsure of himself. When he enforced a rule, he was authoritative, sure of himself, gave off a sense of reliability. His team followed him with the confidence that he would not lead them astray. Now, when he pushes back, his team is confused. Execution slows down.”

“Example?” I pressed.

“We work in complicated projects with other teams. There is a project schedule that requires we show up at a certain time. James always shows up with a full crew, tools ready with all our materials. Now, sometimes, the project isn’t ready when we show up, so we can’t do our work. James always documents the delay to support our claim for costs, you know, full crew, mobilization.”

“And, our contract requires that,” I confirmed. “What now?”

“Now, James is checking the project status the day before to see if the project is ready. He questions showing up if our project segment can’t be completed the next day. I mean, he’s right, but now, his crew is confused. Are they supposed to show up if the project isn’t ready? Now, they begin to question the accuracy of our project schedules. I hear bitching and complaining that we, as a company, are unrealistic, and that James in particular doesn’t know what he is doing. Most of the time, it’s not James, the fault lies in some other project segment over which we have no control.”