Bad managers often unload unwanted tasks on subordinates and keep more interesting and challenging projects for themselves. Real delegation is about handing down plumb assignments and then letting employees figure out how to complete them, with just a few nudges and check-ins.
“It’s not only allocating work, but it’s mentoring and coming up with tasks the employees can feel like they’re owning,” Concelman said.
That is exactly what you wanted when you were that underling. So why, oh why, is this so hard? Lack of trust, said Matthew Pearsall, assistant professor of organizational behavoir at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. But that lack of trust presents another problem: you cannot do it all, at least not well. At some point you must rely on your team to get the work done. And this trait is most valuable to develop for successful leadership early on in your management career.
What is the solution? Remember that old saying about teaching someone to fish so they’ll never go hungry? A master delegator teaches others to do tasks well. The trick is to stop giving in to that need to accomplish things yourself. Yes, you have to be ready to offer instruction or fix things when they go south. But being a coach, and not a slugger, is what you signed up for when you took that promotion.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about trust and that willingness to be vulnerable,” Pearsall said.
Smart delegation by leaders is a global issue, Pearsall said. These days, MBA training in most countries has been institutionalized and standardized, so workplaces from Eastern Europe to Seattle largely run the same.
Asia remains the main exception. There, managers rely on what researchers call “power distance”, meaning it is generally accepted that bosses have supremacy over the people who report to them. Before you think that sounds great, consider this: Power distance means managers rarely give employees the leeway to make decisions. That shuts down creativity — or worse.
Consider an example Malcolm Gladwell offers in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell writes that Korean Air had more crashes than other airlines because junior pilots were afraid to speak up and question decisions by senior pilots.
The caddie-golfer relationship is an example of all that goes right with effective delegation — even when the outcome sometimes goes wrong, said Pearsall. After all, there is no guarantee that the boss — or the pro golfer — will handle the task just-right, either.
Finding someone you trust to make those decisions is not always easy. Chris Granger, an instructor at Grande Oaks Golf Academy in Davie, Florida, tells his students to research their caddies and know going in that the caddie has the knowledge of the game and the research to make the right decisions.
“You have to have someone you really trust,” Granger said. “Anytime you’re not certain about your caddie’s decision-making, you’re not going to be confident, and then you’re not going to be successful.”
It’s not so different in the business world.