Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 4;   January 24, 2018: Understanding Delegation

Understanding Delegation

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers.
Passing the baton in a relay race

U.S. Army Veteran Michael Kacer passes the baton to Staff Sgt. Michael Smith, Warrior Transition Unit, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Widely held beliefs about delegation would suggest that delegating is analogous to passing the baton. But as I argue here, that isn't what effective managers do. In the baton metaphor, managers don't carry the baton themselves. Effective managers work with their subordinates to determine who carries which baton how far. U.S. Army photo by Benny Ontiveros.

The widely accepted definition of delegation is "the assignment of a responsibility or authority to another person, usually from a manager to a subordinate." In this view of delegation, the manager transfers some of the manager's responsibilities — or some of the manager's authority — to a subordinate. If you believe you're delegating, in the sense that you're transferring responsibility or authority from yourself to a subordinate, you probably view yourself as responsible for getting something done — in effect, as a doer. And one of your tasks is to allocate some of your tasks to other doers.

That is not the most effective role for a manager. It is, however, how micromanagers view their roles.

In one sense, using the term delegation to describe what managers do is a tragic error that encourages micromanagement. Using the term implies that what we call delegation is the transfer of responsibility from manager to subordinate. In that sense, the delegation concept is itself problematic, because that isn't what happens when effective managers do their actual jobs.

Here are three insights about managers' jobs.

Don't do; meta-do
Effective managers Effective managers know that
the manager's job is not
to do, but to meta-do
know that the manager's job is not to do, but to meta-do. Managers allocate tasks to people who execute those tasks, and then the managers do what it takes to enable their subordinates to accomplish those tasks. Effective managers lead people and arrange for resources and infrastructure to support those people. They fly political "air cover" when necessary and they influence the organizational culture. They don't manage the tasks of the people who do the tasks. Managing the tasks is what the people who do the tasks do.
The hands-on manager role is dangerous
Some managers' jobs do require that they actually execute some tasks. They're in jobs sometimes described as "hands-on manager." This kind of job is a setup for failure. It's very difficult to keep straight in one's mind what work is to be executed personally, and what work is to be allocated to subordinates. The hands-on manager job creates inherent conflicts of perspective. Someone in this kind of job is likely to get into trouble about delegation, because the job is so poorly defined. See "The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager," Point Lookout for April 23, 2008, for more.
Manager's responsibilities differ from subordinates' responsibilities
Managers are indeed ultimately responsible for the work their subordinates do, but it's a kind of responsibility that differs from the responsibility the subordinates carry. The manager's responsibility is most evident when things don't happen as planned. When things do happen as planned, the manager's responsibility is to ensure that the people who executed those tasks get the credit they're due. When things don't happen as planned, the manager's responsibility is to investigate what went wrong, and then to see that corrective actions are taken so that things work better next time.

So if you feel that it's your job as a manager to delegate a task, there's a good chance that you were holding onto that task yourself. And if you were holding onto it, you might have been doing what micromanagers do. Go to top Top  Next issue: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The piping plover, a threatened species of shore birdUsing the Parking Lot
In meetings, keeping a list we call the "parking lot" is a fairly standard practice. As the discussion unfolds, we "park" there any items that arise that aren't on the agenda, but which we believe could be important someday soon. Here are some tips for making your parking lot process more effective.
An actual deck chair recovered from the sunken liner TitanicThe Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste
Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
The Messerschmitt Me 262, which was the first jet fighter to fly in combatHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
Two F-22A raptors line up for refuelingSymbolic Self-Completion and Projects
The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A spiral notebook, a pencil, and a mobile deviceComing October 28: Notes to Self
Many of us jot important reminders to ourselves on sticky notes, used envelopes, scraps of paper, and whatnot. Often we misplace these notes, or later find them too late to serve their purposes. Here's a low-tech alternative that works better for some. Available here and by RSS on October 28.
Multiple clocks, one for each time zoneAnd on November 4: Mastering Messaging for Pandemics: I
When a pandemic rages, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email communication becomes more important than usual. Citing dates and times unambiguously requires a more rigorous approach than many are accustomed to. Available here and by RSS on November 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.