How much do you (or your managers) delegate? If the answer is “a good bit,” it may be time for a different approach.
As a quick disclaimer: Delegation isn’t inherently bad, and many of those business articles telling you how to “delegate smarter and get more done” have recommendations worth considering. People are promoted to management positions because they’re great at what they do, and it can be difficult to let go of that work to focus on leading.
So if you’re working on getting better at delegating, we applaud you.
There is an issue with the word itself. To “delegate” is to simply entrust tasks to another person. In the words of industry expert Art Markman in Harvard Business Review:
Managers need to stop thinking of passing off responsibilities as delegating — period.
As a manager, a central part of your job is to train and develop people.
To be effective at that, you have to get comfortable with autonomy.
The power of autonomy
When it comes to the 17 key drivers of engagement, autonomy is one of the most important for inspiring people to do their best work. It’s also one of the easiest to overlook … especially when you’re learning to let go of responsibilities.
Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting you should start trusting employees with bigger, more important assignments AND give them the freedom and flexibility to choose how best to approach them.
Just kidding. That’s exactly what I’m telling you to do.
At its core, delegating is often treated as the opposite of autonomy. Rather than asking for thoughtful, meaningful contributions to the company’s overall mission, new managers tend to assign responsibilities that require a lot of oversight and can make it tempting to micromanage.
What if, instead, you were to focus first on goals? Instead of simply re-assigning tasks, you might delegate KPIs. Your role would then transition from overseeing a job to offering support as employees determine the best ways to work toward important milestones.
You can still delegate, of course. But you can inspire, too. Your employees will learn how to fill increasingly significant roles with confidence, and you’ll be freed to focus on big-picture initiatives and leadership.
In fact, in our research here at 15five, we’ve found that allowing greater autonomy is one of the most effective ways to unleash passion, purpose, and meaning at work.
Transitioning from delegation to guidance
When you first realize that it’s time to start letting go of the nitty-gritty to focus more on leading, the process can seem daunting at first. It’s not always easy to give up control of projects you’ve become accustomed to handling yourself, or to let employees learn from their own mistakes. But the sooner you can get comfortable with providing guidance and support, the better off your team — and your organization — will be.
One of the most effective ways to make this transition is also one of the easiest: Ask your employees what they think. Keeping the lines of communication open and the feedback flowing is the one sure way to know when it’s time to allow for more flexibility. Whether during one-on-one meetings or through surveys, ask your employees when they feel delegation is helpful … and if there are areas where greater autonomy would be more productive.
Executives can help with this process, too. CEOs play a central role in helping managers thrive, and the more active their role in supporting manager-employee relationships, the more successful you’ll be. Don’t be afraid to ask for support when you need it.
At first, you may need to be very selective. You might invite an employee to shadow you first before passing on a big project. Or you might create a plan that has someone progressing through increasingly challenging tasks until they’re ready for more autonomy.
Above all else, remember that it’s your job now to help keep employees engaged. For that to happen, your people need opportunities that let them stretch beyond comfort zones and experience work that’s rewarding.