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

Understanding Delegation

by

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

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