Leading people: When 'delegating' means 'dumping'

Bad delegating is often the result of managers trying too hard to keep control over the work.

I had a phone call last week from a chief executive called Simon, who needed my advice on a problem that had developed with a member of his senior team. He had delegated the task of writing up the quarterly report for trustees to this particular individual - let's call him Peter.

He hadn't done it to Simon's satisfaction, some words were exchanged and now Peter is refusing to take on any more delegated tasks.

It turns out that "to Simon's satisfaction" actually meant doing it exactly the way that Simon would have done it if he had written it himself. And that's the problem: that's not delegation; it's 'dumping'. Delegation is a very particular skill and needs to be done properly if you want it to work and be of benefit both to you and the person to whom you have delegated.

Any task is composed of three different elements: responsibility, authority and accountability. Responsibility means that individuals actually carry out the task themselves. Authority means that they get to take decisions about how the task is done. Accountability belongs to the person who gets it in the neck if things go wrong.

With a properly delegated task, you give the individual both responsibility and authority, but you cannot delegate accountability because that remains with you. And that's one of the reasons why many managers find delegation so hard. It's not easy to absorb the blame if the person you delegate to messes up.

The way most managers, including Simon in this instance, try to control the cock-up factor is to insist that the job is done exactly the way they would have done it themselves. But that is demotivating for the individual and actually robs you of the opportunity of seeing whether there is a better way of getting something done.

It is important to delegate tasks, because it's a really good way of growing and developing people, which, after all, is part of your job as a manager. So remember: don't delegate without passing on some freedom to make decisions; don't delegate a job just because you don't want to or haven't time to do it yourself; do monitor and support the individual as they carry out the task; and - most difficult of all - do take the blame if the task is done badly and apportion the credit if it's done well.

And never forget: you retain accountability, so it's in your interests to get the delegation right.

• Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.


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