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Alyssa Freas
How you can become a better delegator

Delegation is rarely as simple as it seems. Here's what can go wrong and how to fix it.

August 12, 2013
by Alyssa Freas

The best leaders create environments in which their teams achieve results while exemplifying company values. Successful delegation is a critical element of such an environment, whether it's at a public accounting firm, the finance department of a public company, or any other organization where CPAs hold leadership positions.

Management gurus often make successful delegation sound like a simple checklist: Prepare, assign, coach, and ensure accountability are usually a few of the to-dos. But experience teaches that if delegation were so simple, everyone would be doing it well—which isn't the case. It simply isn't that simple.

It helps to look at what can go wrong and see how successful delegators make it go right instead.

Underestimating the complexity of the task

This happens when a task is viewed as "easy" and a delegator gets impatient when a team member doesn't "get it." The next time, the delegator should make certain the team member has a complete understanding of the task. To help ensure success, he or she should take a few moments to write down what the task entails. This is more time-consuming upfront, but the effort will reduce rework and increase quality.

Overestimating the capacity of the person to do the task

Problems occur when it is assumed that the assignee is so capable that he or she should know how to do it all. The person may be a top performer, but what does he or she know about the specific task? The specifics may be completely outside the employee's wheelhouse. For example, Samantha might be a great surgeon, but if the task calls for brain surgery plus setting a broken leg, she may not be the best choice for the whole process if she specializes in orthopedics.

Next time, think through the components of the task. Is this person able to do each of them, or is help needed for certain components? When in doubt, ask!

Giving important jobs to the usual suspects

The big jobs tend to be assigned to the strongest workers—overburdening them and underexposing the rest of the team to developmental experiences. A delegator should look at the implications, short term and long term, of giving the task to a particular individual. What is the impact on others who might benefit from the exposure and the experience?

Ignoring important signals

Often lost amid the eagerness to delegate may be the fact that an otherwise capable employee has something happening in his or her personal life that makes it more challenging than ordinary to get the work done. Even if this employee would typically be the "right" person for the task, it may be necessary to talk with him or her first to decide if it is the "right" time for him or her to be assigned the work.

Underestimating the capacity of the person to do the task

This happens when it is believed the employee is concerned about doing the task, so lots of details are provided about how to do it, all the while missing the fact that the person is completely capable, already has a plan, and may not be listening. It is necessary to find out early in the conversation if the person understands the assignment and has ideas on how he or she would approach it.

Limiting the amount of time spent describing the task

Sometimes a delegator rushes off an email rather than taking the time to talk about the assignment to ensure the employee understands it. Next time, when delegating via email, it is a good practice to write it, "sleep on it," and reread it before sending. What sounds brilliant after a long day might not look so good the following morning. A good strategy is to have a neutral party read it. And better than that would be to take the time to schedule a delegation conversation with the person to discuss the task.

Difficulty letting go of the decision-making process or task

This often happens when the task is in the delegator's comfort zone, and proper consideration is not given to whether the task was delegated to the logical person. This is the most complex roadblock and requires a great deal of self-examination. The delegator must ask himself or herself several key questions: Does he or she have time to do the task? What would be the positive and negative consequences of delegating the task? And what would be the consequences to the team, to the results, and to the party who takes the job on?

What does all of this amount to? First, delegation demands good communication: listening skills, intuition, dialogue, openness, inquisitiveness, and clarity. It is not a one-way street; at least, successful delegation is not. Most roadblocks are best overcome through excellent two-way communication. It's a delegation conversation, not a delegation monologue. Finally, the last roadblock, letting go, requires intuition, self-awareness, and a big picture orientation—a willingness to look at what will generate the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

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Alyssa Freas is the founder and CEO of Executive Coaching Network Inc.