Deliberate Delegation: When to Say “No” and When to “Let Go” from American Management Association 7/13/2010

“I know I need to delegate more, but I can get things done more quickly if I just do it myself.”

“I’d like to delegate more, but nobody on my team has the skills to do certain key tasks.”

When an executive offers the above laments, I know he or she hasn’t yet seen the forest beyond the trees. Many executives who are extremely intelligent and very achievement oriented can be quite short-sighted. They allow the pressure of short-term financial success and hyper-focus on day-to-day tasks to take precedence over long-term strategy and growth.

One of the most common conversations I have with executives and HR people concerns helping people understand the power of delegation and teaching them how to delegate effectively.

The benefits of learning how to delegate effectively are many:

  1. You add value to the organization by successfully leveraging resources
  2. You give others the opportunity to grow
  3. You facilitate organic growth (i.e. develop internal talent)
  4. You enhance your credibility and increase your influence
  5. You increase employee engagement and, therefore, performance and retention

When a manager doesn’t delegate, he or she typically has a deficiency in one or more of the following areas:

  • Trust
  • Skill
  • Organizational commitment
  • Team capability
  • Confidence in self or others

The Remedy: “Deliberate Delegation”
But how do you decide when to delegate?  I’d like to offer a structured approach that will help you decide when and how to delegate. I call the approach “deliberate delegation” as the emphasis is on being strategic and intentional, as opposed to reactive and unintentional.

Step 1: Decide “no” (don’t delegate) or “let go” (delegate)
The first step is to determine if delegation is appropriate to the situation. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that there is never a good time to delegate. That attitude sends the message to higher ups that you don’t care about your team’s development.  It also conveys the notion to your team that you don’t believe in them and that they are not worthy of your trust. Both messages have the same effect: they cause employee engagement and credibility to take a nose-dive.

Key questions:
1. If I were able to delegate this task, would it be beneficial to either the organization or the person to whom I am delegating?
2. How urgent is this task?  (0 = not urgent; 3 = somewhat urgent; 5 = very urgent)
3. How important is this task to the organization? (0 = not important; 3 = somewhat important; 5 = important)

If you answer “yes” to the first question and you arrive at a score of 6 or lower when combining the answers to questions 2 and 3, that’s the green light to delegate. Don’t over-think it; just find a way to delegate that task.

If you answer “yes” to the first question and you arrive at a score above 6 when combining the answers to questions 2 and 3, then consider delegating this task with supervision, or not delegating.  There will be times for the purpose of developing others you will need to take the risk, but the safe bet is to do this task yourself.

If you want to play it safe, the above questions will help you find opportunities to delegate, while maintaining control of what is too risky at the time. This is not an excuse to never delegate; don’t just rank everything 5.

Hold yourself accountable. For every four tasks, find at least one that you can delegate. In other words, at least 25% of the time, find something that isn’t so important and urgent that you “have to” take it on. The goal is to make this a habit until the behavior becomes automatic.  The result:  your people will become more engaged and you’ll be able to concentrate more of your energy on top-tier tasks.

Step 2: Make it about talent development
Find the intersection between delegation and development. Delegation is a great opportunity to close gaps in your team’s development. It is a win-win-win situation. Your direct reports win because they grow and gain competency. Your organization wins because its employees are more engaged and productive. You win because you save time and get credit for building the talent pipeline. You’ll also enhance your credibility, which expands your influence.

With each of your direct reports, create a list of their top development items and key growth interests. For the items that you decide to delegate, be strategic and assign them to people who either need to develop in that area or have a strong interest in the area.

The Marshmallow Test
A famous psychology experiment was conducted to see the benefits of delaying instant gratification. Children were put in a room with a marshmallow in front of them. They were told if they did not eat the marshmallow, they would get rewarded with extra marshmallows. Once the experimenter left, some children ate the marshmallow right away. Some used every strategy possible not to eat the marshmallow (i.e., sitting on their hands, looking away, etc.). All of the children were tracked over time. The children who were able to weigh the cost of not eating the marshmallow with the benefit of receiving a greater reward in time, were found to be much more successful in their lives. The ability to delay gratification for a greater reward is associated with higher levels of emotional intelligence, which is turn is associated with executive success.

Here’s the bottom line:  If you tackle a task on your own, you get it done quickly.  If you take the extra time to delegate you’re likely to get twice as much return on your effort. What do you think? Can you wait to eat the marshmallow?