Learning to let go – Five rules for delegating more effectively and becoming a better leader

DelegationLearning how to delegate is a crucial step up the career ladder; but whilst it sounds easy enough in principle, delegation can often be overwhelming and difficult to do in practice.

Lets face it, how many times have you thought about giving a task to somebody else to complete, but held back because it will be ‘quicker to do it yourself’?

Without learning to let go and passing the work onto colleagues or suppliers who may be better skilled or equipped for the task than you, you’ll never be able to realise your full potential and spread the influence of your achievements.

So how do you learn to let go?

Well it is a gradual process and one that most of us need to practice, practice and practice some more, but these five rules will help you get started…

Rule 1 – Think like a delegator, and less like an implementer

You’ve worked hard to build up your skills and have got a good reputation amongst your colleagues for being trusted to get things done; but there must have been times when you have been given a task that has been too big to manage by yourself.

Thinking as implementer you dive in, knowing you’ll need to cancel your evening’s plans so that the task can be completed for the next day and you won’t let your colleagues down.

After a while though you are feeling overwhelmed and have reached a point where you could really do with someone else to help out.

But you hold back from asking – probably due to the following reasons:

  • You are worried that the other person will not do the task as well as you do it yourself.
  • You think that the time spent showing someone else how to do the task would be better spent just getting it done instead.
  • You feel embarrassed, guilty or lazy about asking someone else to take on some of the pressure, or you are worried people think you cannot cope.

A delegator will think differently.  As a delegator you will know that two minds are better than one and having more people to help out with a difficult task brings fresh energy and enthusiasm; resulting in a better quality deliverable, plus increasing the likelihood that it will be delivered on time.

You think about the bigger picture, because you know leveraging the time and skills of your colleagues allows you to achieve so much more than you could by yourself.

You know you cannot do everything and will admit to yourself that there are other more skilled people available who can undertake the task – so why not arrange to use their time instead?

Starting to think and adopt the mind-set of a delegator is a critical step in this process.

Rule 2 – Clearly define the goal and constraints

Always ensure that the person you are delegating to understands what they are doing, why they are doing it and are fully aware of the boundaries or constraints they must work within.

A simple example would be:

“I need you to review this document for grammar and spelling, as it will be sent to our key customers and any mistakes will look unprofessional.  Please can you complete this task by this afternoon?”

For more complex activities, it is worth drafting a process document that shows the steps a person needs to take to complete the tasks and outlines any issues they should watch out for.

And for major projects, you may just want to set your team a goal and leave it to them to work out the best way to achieve it.

For example:

“My goal is to increase the number of people signing up to the company email newsletter by 20%.  The team will have a fixed timeframe and budget, but will have the freedom to decide on the best way to increase the volume of sign-ups.”

Finally, be honest with people when you ask them to do something.  If the task is slightly repetitive or boring, don’t try to oversell it or pretend it is going to be great fun.

Instead be open about what is involved and in a non-patronising way explain why the task is important to your organisation and how a good job will allow the individual to gain trust and do more interesting stuff in the future.

Rule 3 – Become a coach and don’t criticise

One of the hardest parts of delegation is fighting the urge to take back control of a situation when you don’t believe it is going as well as it could.

For example, having given the task of running a workshop or chairing a meeting to one of your colleagues, it is often very difficult to sit back and let them run the show; especially if they are still mastering the skills of maintaining a steady flow and keeping the group on focus.

However by taking over during the meeting or being too vocal about ‘moving things along’ you not only risk undermining your colleague’s confidence, but also their respect amongst other colleagues.

Frustrating as it may be, the better path is to provide feedback outside of the meeting and preferably away from other colleagues.

This is all part of the managerial technique of ‘coaching’; which is a combination of teaching, providing feedback, setting challenging goals and most of all – providing motivation and encouragement to members of your team.

Being a great coach to your team requires a lot of effort and it is not easy to get it right all of the time, but helping people to get things done better is one of the key factors of successful management.

Rule 4 – Review progress and make people accountable

Nobody likes to be shouted at, but neither do they like vague, wishy-washy management and it is important to get the right balance between keeping a close eye on progress and giving your team the scope to deliver under their own initiative.

Accountability starts with a clear definition of the goal and a timeline for delivery, but crucially the person taking on the delegated task needs to take ownership of it too.

One of the best ways to get individuals and teams to take ownership is to set them a goal and ask them to come back to you with a plan for achieving it.

By going through the motions of analysis and planning, the team will be able to give more thought to the problem than you have time to do yourself and have developed an emotional-bond of ownership to solving it.

There are many different ways to get progress updates on your task, ranging from email reports through to review meetings; and the amount of effort you expend in reviewing progress naturally depends on the size of the task.

Rule 5 – Think strategically and set the agenda

As you move into a delegator role, you will not only be responsible for your own work, but also for the work of your team – so you need to ensure they are focusing on the activities that will deliver best value to the organisation.

I’ve discussed the benefits of setting goals for teams and giving them the scope to deliver those goals in the way they feel is best, but if you are setting the wrong goals or not communicating smaller tasks accurately, you’ll end up wasting time and effort.

The skill is to be able to think both tactically and strategically.

Tactical thinking is the day-to-day problem solving.  This is what you are moving away from and asking your team to do.  Your role is to validate the team’s tactical thinking and ensure it fits within the constraints of the long-goal.

Strategic thinking is taking the long-term goal, breaking it down into smaller areas of work with key milestones and setting priorities for the team.

As a strategic thinker, you need to be thinking two or three steps beyond the work the team are currently doing, so that they are given a clear direction throughout the project or initiative.

It is not easy to constantly be thinking in the present and the future; but people who can take a corporate objective, turn it into a series of actionable steps and motivate other employees to deliver and achieve the objective will always be highly valued by organisations.

A final word on delegating

You can only achieve so much working alone and having great ideas is not enough if you cannot put them into action; but once you start adding other people to your team, the potential to achieve difficult goals becomes a reality.

So to really achieve impact, you need to be able to get other people to share your vision and utilise their skills to achieve the results; and all this starts with learning how to delegate.

Image source: Kevin Dooley

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