Why does delegation fail?

You might know by now that I have written various Blog articles on the need for Business Leaders to stop micromanaging and to delegate. Yet I still see business leaders who are overburdened and overloaded with tasks, instead on focusing on the highest priorities and delegating tasks to others.

When I challenge such leaders I usually get the same reply “Listen Silvan, delegation may be a great idea but not possible in practice. I am tired of redoing or undoing work I delegated to someone else”. Hence I see business leaders constantly in the “engine room”, working extremely hard, like a jogger running on the spot, whilst feeling that he/she is not really getting through to his/her colleagues and that all his awake time is taken up by work.

So the question remains. Is it at all possible that Business Leaders lighten their load, by delegating more and hence growing the capacity of his/her direct reports? My personal experience, backed by various research study, is that yes it is possible, but as a business leader you need to take time before handing off the task to understand the challenges that could occur once the work leaves your hands and address them preemptively. Here are common reasons why delegation fails and what to do about them.

  • A one-size-fits-all approach to delegation is a strategy doomed to defeat. Delegating by only passing the buck and then leaving your colleagues to figure out how to execute it will just not work.
  • Lack of Critical Thinking. While many of us want to be considered smart, focusing on how others see you can be problematic when overplayed. If you jump in too early and too often with insights, your peers and direct reports will never have an opportunity to develop their own expertise. Confidence also takes a beating when people enter a meeting knowing they will leave feeling less than their manager. And while your insights may be helpful, they’re often offered only after a team has invested weeks of work preparing a presentation. It’s also dangerous to have only one person doing most of the critical thinking in an organisation; you could be leaving your company vulnerable to blind spots. To elevate your team’s capacity to think for themselves, ask questions, instead of providing answers. Open-ended questions allow others to broaden their lens and consider new angles, rather than merely data-gathering queries. Instead of having to supply the solution, you activate others’ critical thinking skills.
  • Lack of Initiative. I am often told that employees lack the initiative to make bold moves or even follow up on smaller ones, leaving business leaders nagging and chasing others. Some business leaders conclude that delegation is not “worth it” as “delegated” tasks still steal precious time and need to be chased through. If your attempts at delegation are failing because you think others lack initiative or follow-through, address it tactically and strategically. Assign someone to jot down notes, action items, dates,and ownership before the end of each meeting, and start the next meeting following up on promises made. While this might sound basic, this is a sound way to create a system to have things followed up and to have everyone held to account. More strategically, consider focusing on communicating constantly on what are the top priorities. By scrubbing sloppy execution and signaling what truly matters, you can shape up accountability and motivation.
  • Lack of Quality. I also often here that delegating means that “things will be done at a standard below what is acceptable” and hence why delegation will never work. Little will certain business leaders think on the huge opportunities they are losing to literally unleash their team’s ability to contribute quality. First of all you need to provide persons you are delegating to, with a list of common mistakes and what you would like instead. Moreover instead of fixing any mistake or shortcoming, point it out and request a repair. Annotate a document with comments, instead of redlining it with direct edits. This will take more time initially but save you time in the long run as your team learns what you’re looking for. By showing them where they can improve, you’ll find that you have create a more sustainable working method.
  • Lack of Speed. Many business leaders “grumble” that employees or colleagues take so much more time to perform tasks that he/she would take. This may be the case because you are more experienced and you know exactly what you want.The next time you have what you consider a “quick” task, ask your team member how long they think it will take. If there is a discrepancy, ask about their process and the reason for the estimate. If necessary, you can help shave off time but removing unnecessary frills or details. For example, they may not need to create a beautiful slide deck but simply write up two paragraphs. On the other hand, you will start to become better educated about what and how long it takes to complete a delegated task and adjust your expectations accordingly.

As business leaders we have to stop pushing out the work, only to pull it back again when it fails to meet expectations. By diving deeper into the point of failure, we can better address the underlying causes of delegation failure and encourage our team to be more motivated and productive…whilst creating a sustainable working environment for ourselves and others around us.

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