Delegation: the art of getting stuff done without being too annoying

The whole point of managing other people is so that we can be responsible for more than we can do.

This inevitably means that we have to ask other people to do things, and ensure that those things are done to the right quality standards, at the right time, and within the right budget, and all without being too annoying.

This creates a tension because although we can delegate the task to someone else, we cannot delegate the responsibility – so as much as we might want to empower people and leave them to it, we also need the task done properly … which is where things can go wrong …

… if we delegate but cling on, staying too involved, then we not only set off the Annoying Manager Alarm, but we undermine their confidence and motivation. They will be left feeling frustrated and bored, and will be less willing to take risks and make decisions because they will just be waiting for us to pile in with our big fat red pen anyway.

Over time they will become more and more detached, slowly morphing into robots that follow instructions rather than creative individuals who engage with their work …

… but if we do the opposite and delegate too much, walking away and leaving them to it, again the Annoying Manager Alarm jangles as we undermine their confidence and motivation. They will be left feeling abandoned, they will be frustrated and bored, our disappearing act creating the impression that the task is unimportant and unappreciated.

Over time they become more and more detached, taking less and less care as no one seems to be that bothered, slowly morphing into mediocre employees operating well below their abilities.

One way to bring the worst of both these options is what I call the Occasional Demon, the manager who mostly wants nothing to do with our tasks, only to pop up out the blue and tell us what we’re doing wrong. They are absent, then suddenly too involved, usually demonstrating little more than their ignorance.

Occasional Demons are a walking Annoying Manager Alarm.

So how do we hit the sweet spot and get the balance right?

Steve Radcliffe, in his book Leadership Plain and Simple talks about how leaders deliver through a series of “big conversations”, and I think Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey’s Situational Leadership model* is the best way to think about how to structure those initial conversations.

Situational Leadership is a contingent model, in that it argues that there is no one way to do it; how we delegate will be contingent on two factors:

  • The person’s ability to do the task (competence)
  • The person’s willingness to do the task (motivation and confidence)

As with all good management, it needs a relationship of trust to work properly or the conversations are unlikely to be open and honest (see this previous post on building trusting relationships in management).

Do they know how to do the task?

The first thing to talk about is not the competence of the individual in a general sense, it is about the individual’s specific competence with the task: that is their level of knowledge, skills and experience at doing the task being delegated.

To do this we ask questions, such as how they have done this sort of thing in the past, and ask them to talk through how they would go about delivering the task in this case.

This allows us to decide where we think they are on a scale of 1 to 4:

1 – None or very little knowledge, skills and experience
2 – Low level
3 – Medium level
4 – High level

If you disagree with the employee about their level of competence, it is your decision as a manager because you retain accountability for the task.

Do they want to do the task?

We then discuss their level of motivation and confidence to do the job: how do they feel about it? Do they want to do it? Are they confident?

Again this is diagnosed through open discussion and if you disagree about their level, it is for them to decide; it’s not for us to tell them how they feel about something.

Diagnosis

To simplify things, this leaves us with four Development Levels:

Development Level 1 (D1) is the willing newbie, the new driver who first gets in the car, excited about taking lessons but doesn’t have a clue how to drive. It’s the person rushing home with their brand new electric guitar, determined to be the next Jimi Hendrix, but doesn’t know the first chord or note, or the language student excited about how learning French will change their life, but who can barely conjugate the verb to be.

They have competence level 1, but a high motivation level.

Development Level 2 (D2) is the danger zone. They have taken a few driving lessons, or learnt a few chords, or a few phrases of French, but now they are aware of just how much is left to learn. They have discovered the sheer vastness of the task, their own incompetence is daunting, and although their knowledge and skill have actually improved, they have become disillusioned. This is when most of us put the guitar in the corner and slowly forget about it.

They have competence level 2, but a low motivation and confidence level.

Development Level 3 (D3) is when the clouds are parting and their competence is fairly high (level 3) but they are still a bit nervous and unsure of themselves. This is the driver who has just passed their test, but they remain cautious. It is the able musician, but not the confident show-off they yearn to be. It is someone who can make themselves understood in French but maybe they avoid grammatical trouble-spots and don’t express themselves as well as they could because they are fearful of error.

They have competence level 3, but wavering motivation and confidence – usually when we’re at D3 for a task, we’re better at it than we think we are.

Development Level 4 (D4) is the fully competent driver, tootling around town on autopilot, it’s the musician who can play without thinking, and the French-speaker who naturally shifts between languages without much consideration.

They have competence level 4 and a high level of motivation and confidence.

We can draw this into a 2×2 matrix, because we have high/low competency of the x-axis and high/low motivation on the y-axis: (usually this matrix is flipped – the high/low being reversed so that it forms an upside-down version of the below, but I’ve never really seen the point of that).

So … how do we delegate?

Once we have worked together to diagnose their development level in relation to the specific task (and remember that it will be different for different tasks), we need to agree the right management style.

As managers we have two main ways of managing:

Directive – we tell them how to the job, we give answers – this is good for building competence (knowledge and skills) because they don’t know how to do it and we do; and Supportive – we support them, we ask questions, we listen and coach – we don’t give them the answers, we help them find the answers themselves – this is good for building motivation and confidence.

So … at D1, with low competence but high motivation, we use Management Style 1 (S1) which is highly directive and low supportive.

This is like your first driving lesson where the driving instructor is telling you what to do, or your guitar teacher is doing most of the talking, or it’s the French teacher giving you the basic vocabulary and grammar – they are in control, and with the S1 management style, it’s the manager who is in control and making the decisions.

If you got in the car for the very first time and the instructor started saying “well what do you think?” you’d probably feel pretty deflated and ask for your money back: you didn’t pay for someone to ask your opinion, you paid for someone to tell you what to do!

At D2, their competence has grown but is not yet strong, but their confidence and motivation is falling because they are frustrated at the scale of the task. This requires us to keep going with directive style so that they can keep developing, but also turn up the supportive style so we can help them understand how they have improved: S2 is high directive and high supportive.

This is the driving instructor still very present and decisive, but asking you questions and involving you more in the decision-making side of the skill (“Why did we drop down to second gear on that hill?“), this helps demonstrate to yourself that you know the answers and can handle it and it helps bring focus to the areas where you are less sure.

The French teacher might be asking you which verb ending to use, rather than just telling you. If you know the answer, you build your confidence. If you don’t, they will help you and so build your knowledge.

At D3, both competence and confidence has grown, and they don’t need to be told what to do anymore, so Management Style 3 (S3) dials down the directive approach and we are now mainly running with the supportive style.

A new driver doesn’t need someone telling them to change gears, but maybe they need someone by their side, perhaps helping them think through what they’re doing and where they’re going and to provide support if their confidence wanes.

At S3, unlike with S1 and S2, the employee is making the decisions about how to do the job.

At D4, we dial down the supportive management, not to zero – we don’t disappear – but they are in full control and our directive and supportive styles and mainly used to show we value the task, that we care about the person, but that we also trust them to deliver.

Here’s what that looks like imposed on our 2×2 matrix:

We also need to stay involved with people at D4 for two other reasons:

  1. Competence is unlikely to fall back, but motivation can drop, especially if the task lacks challenge – if so, we need to increase our supportive management (i.e. treat them as D3 by using S3), and if that doesn’t work, we need to dial up the directive style (i.e. treat them as D2)
  2. We need to make sure that what they are delivering is what we expect them to deliver – never underestimate the capacity for misunderstanding: whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood

Making sure you get what you asked for

Delegation isn’t just a single conversation, and this is where Steve Radcliffe’s “big conversations” are a useful addition to this model.

Situational Leadership is a fantastic tool for thinking through how to have that initial conversation and agreeing together how you will support them (how often you will meet etc.), but some things are non-negotiable, and Radcliffe’s model gives us a good structure for what we need to do next to maximize our chances of success.

Radcliffe identifies four conversations we need to have, and maybe a fifth, depending on what happens:

  1. The initial conversation – see above
  2. Ongoing conversations – regular check-ins to make sure things are on track, issues are addressed, that we diagnosed correctly and adjust our management style if necessary, and that we demonstrate that we care about the task
  3. (Addressing poor performance or under-delivery – not always necessary, but sometimes we have to go there)
  4. Acknowledging delivery – it is important to pause and acknowledge the delivery, again this demonstrates the importance we attach to it
  5. Wash Up – a lessons learnt and what-next session in which you review what happened, capture learning, and plan for next steps

This is all much easier to say than do, but there’s nothing complicated or difficult, it is just – like a lot of management – about cracking on with it and being consistent, fair, and willing to adjust behaviours to get the best results.

* If you want to know more, here’s a link to the Wikipedia page on Situational Leadership Theory, and the books Management of Organizational Behaviour: Leading Human Resources or the briefer and slightly irritating (it’s the writing style, I find it grates, but the book is very good) Leadership and the One Minute Manager are well worth reading.

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