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

Understanding Delegation

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

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? rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.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:

Wildflowers in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National ForestsRenewal
Renewal is a time to step out of your usual routine and re-energize. We find renewal in weekends, vacations, days off, even in a special evening or hour in the midst of our usual pattern. Renewal provides perspective. It's a climb to the mountaintop to see if we're heading in the right direction.
Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Toto tooThe Hypothetical Trap
Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should you be careful of the "What If?"
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan GreenspanThe Paradox of Confidence
Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
Drawing the line between one category and the nextMeets Expectations
Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds expectations," and "needs improvement." Many find the "meets" rating demoralizing. Why?
A wall of stoneRed Flags: II
When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

stacks of gold coinsComing January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.
A vial of COVID-19 vaccineAnd on February 3: Cost Concerns: Bias
When we consider the costs of problem solutions too early in the problem-solving process, the results of comparing alternatives might be unreliable. Deferring cost concerns until we fully understand the problem can yield more options and better decisions. Available here and by RSS on February 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.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 500-1000 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.