Delegation: The hard work of letting go: Leadership Essentials (Part 4)

Too many leaders hang on to tasks they should be delegating and end up working long hours and feeling overwhelmed, stressed and frustrated. They convince themselves they are indispensable and others simply cannot do the job as expertly as they can. Deep down, these leaders simply don’t want to let go. This is demoralising, frustrating and confusing for employees. Our experience suggests that this is one of the biggest blockers to effective leadership and positive team morale.

So how can leaders let go whilst at the same time ensuring results and standards are maintained at a high level?

There are 5 steps to effective delegation:

  1. Reducing limiting fears and barriers
  2. Deciding what to delegate and to whom
  3. Agreeing a robust delegation process
  4. Building ownership and independent thinking
  5. Anticipating challenges and how to respond

Step 1: Reducing limiting fears and barriers

Effective delegation requires good awareness of yourself and your context, including a clear understanding of the fears and external barriers that get in the way of effective delegation. Typical fears/blockers we see playing out include:

Once you are more aware of your fears and blockers, you can start taking positive steps to tackle these. There is no one easy way to reduce all these barriers, however, the remaining keys should help you.

Step 2: Deciding what to delegate and to whom

Match delegated tasks to individuals in your team based on a detailed understanding of their current performance as well as what they are capable of and what energises them. Delegate in a way that helps people to stretch positively (in other words, in areas of natural strength and energy) and progress towards their development goals.

Criteria to apply when observing and assessing people for delegation and stretch assignments include:

Aspirations – what are their career development aspirations?
Strengths – what are their natural strengths and energisers; what tasks are they passionate about?
Skills – what skills and abilities do they have?
Learning agility – how well do they learn and adapt to tasks outside their comfort zone?
Performance – what outcomes and results are they currently delivering?

Step 3: Agreeing a robust delegation process

Many people fail to perform delegated tasks effectively as a result of poor planning and lack of structure.

There are 3 main areas you need to consider to ensure clarity on both what is expected and how you will remain updated and provide support.

Clear goals and measures
Ensure the person knows what is expected and how this fits in to the overall goals of the team and organisation.
Regular check-ins
Agree regular check-ins (this should ideally be done during regular catch-up meetings you are already having) to share progress and provide input and coaching.
Feedback and support
Provide regular, clear and specific feedback on progress. Specify the behaviours you want to see the person use more of the time as well as those that should be done differently to improve results. Offer support, guidance and coaching throughout the process to maximise the chances of success. Remember that delegation is not abdication!

Step 4: Building ownership and independent thinking

The more the individual thinks independently and takes ownership of the tasks and outcomes, the less you will need to be directly involved. There are several ways to build ownership and independent thinking including:

  • Coaching
  • Encouraging solutions thinking (insist on solutions, not problems)
  • Ensuring people have the resources and authority to solve the problem
  • Giving people space to do it their way (be tough on the ‘what’ (i.e. outcomes) but allow more experienced people to determine ‘how’ they will go about the work)
  • Showing tolerance and patience when people are learning
  • Conducting regular check-ins to review progress 

To understand who you should delegate to, remember that employee contribution is a function of two main variables – the person’s Performance and the Passion (energy and commitment) they have for their work. If we plot performance on the X axis and passion for work on the Y axis, we can identify five different talent categories:

  1. Vital talent (your star performers, who will help your team to outperform)
  2. Disengaged performers (your rising stars, who, if engaged, will also help your team to outperform)
  3. Steady contributors (your “hidden heroes”, who, with a little encouragement, could raise their game and your team’s results)
  4. Engaged underperformers (the toughest to manage as they are committed to the job and company, yet their performance is below the required standard)
  5. Disengaged underperformers (your most challenging team members, who need help to engage with and perform their work, or to move on to something new)

Recommended delegation approaches to use with each of these groups are as follows:

Step 5:  Anticipating challenges and how to respond

Delegation is rarely without challenge and risk. You can easily get derailed unless you identify potential obstacles and plan for how you will deal with them.

Typical challenges include: lack of alignment of expectations, lack of confidence or skill to handle the task effectively, unwillingness to ask for help, stress and burnout, etc. I always encourage leaders to consider 3 different scenarios – worst case, likely case and best case and what each might look like. This will provide you with a clearer picture of the challenges that might arise with each person when you delegate to them. Planning how to deal with these challenges means you will be prepared for the most likely challenges and can prevent them turning into bigger problems.

The benefits of effective delegation to you as a leader and to the business as a whole are significant in terms of increased productivity, motivation and morale. The hardest part is letting go and overcoming your own mental barriers. By tackling some of your own fear and following the steps outlined above, it is almost certain you will become happier, healthier and more valuable to your company.

James Brook