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?

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Management essentials: three ways for managers to build trust

If you want to succeed as a manager, you need to build relationships of trust with your team.

If they don’t trust you, nothing else matters: nothing you do will land right, the extra-mile won’t be run, the box won’t get thought outside of, no one will be saluting what you run up the flagpole … in short, creativity and motivation will drag sluggishly along the floor no matter how much cake you bring in on a Friday.

In fact, if our untrustworthy manager brought in cake on a Friday, what would you think?

You’d probably assume some sneaky ulterior motive, that they were trying to ingratiate themselves or bribe you with superficial treats … although obviously you’d still eat the cake, just to be polite.

If you’ve ever had a manager you didn’t trust, you won’t need much persuading on this point.

Saying you need trust in the team will seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious – and I’d agree with you, so imagine my surprise when someone once interrupted me to say:

We don’t have the luxury of building trusting relationships, we need people to get on with it and deliver

Someone on a management training course once (yes, seriously)

Hands up who wants to work for this person?

Thought not.

So, I am disappointed I need to do this, but I will start with three reasons why building trust is worthwhile, before going on to share three things you need to do to build trust in your teams.

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The soon-to-be-famous Four Cornerstones model of management

Management comes with power, and with power comes responsibility.

Leaders may create the organisational climate, but managers make the weather. This is why it is the manager who is most often cited as the biggest single factor in employee satisfaction and engagement, and the biggest reason people leave their jobs.

A lot of this is due to a poor relationship and a lack of recognition for the effort employees make and the outcomes they achieve. Too few managers spend time building that relationship or taking sufficient interest to understand what their team is doing.

There are good reasons for this.

A lot of managers are expected to do a “day job” on which they are measured, then do some management too, as if it were a minor little add-on extra like being the Fire Warden or agreeing to be on the rota to empty the dishwasher on a weekly basis.

It isn’t.

Management is a serious responsibility that takes time, and if you’re unwilling or unable to invest that time, then please don’t be a manager.

The impact you can have if you don’t take it seriously is enormous. Not just on the organisation in terms of the lost opportunities from the mediocre performances of most of the people you manage, but on the individuals themselves in terms of their happiness, wellbeing and career opportunities.

The starting place is always respect.

This isn’t an American TV drama where the boss gets to shout at the interns, this is real life where managers must treat the people they manage with exactly the same level of respect as they treat everyone else.

This isn’t a teacher-pupil relationship, or a parent-child relationship, it’s a professional relationship between adults.

The manager has more responsibility, and gets to make decisions and provide feedback – there is an undeniable power dynamic in play – but managers don’t get their blood replaced with the blue royal sort, nor get given a crown when they are handed the keys to management, and treating their team with anything other than respect is unacceptable.

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Stuff I wish I’d know years ago: five top tips for interviewing people

I just spent a day interviewing people.

There is a reason Julie Andrews didn’t include running a recruitment campaign in her list of favourite things: compared to raindrops on roses and/or whiskers on kittens, interviewing people can be a real chore.

This is a problem because it’s also one of the most important things we ever do … and yet so few people do it well.

If we get it wrong we might miss out on great talent, but more importantly we might employ someone who ends up costing us a huge amount of energy and cash, and damages the motivation and performance of others in the organisation.

This is the main reason running “Interview Skills” workshops is one of my favourites. It’s such an important topic and has lovely clear positive tangible outcomes (I hear loads of great stories from previous participants about interviews they’ve run after the workshop, and how they’ve ended up making different – better – decisions as a consequence).

One of the things participants like is that it has a few solid tips and techniques that can make such a big difference.

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SMART objectives can be really DUMB

How many people and organisations suffer through the process of objective setting, insisting they be SMART, and yet feel like they’re an unnecessary evil that gets in the way of the day job?

SMART is one of those cases where the acronym is so good, it takes over the whole process.

Of course objectives must be Specific and Measurable, although being measurable means that they have to be specific anyway. Objectives should ideally be Agreed, always Realistic, and adding Time-bound at the end is absolutely crucial – there has to be a deadline (I’m using the definition of SMART from MindTools).

In other words, being specific about what you want and when you want it.

The problem is that it doesn’t often work out that way.

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Making performance objectives measurable

Probably the single biggest challenge in setting performance objectives is making them measurable.

This is important because …

Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get

Dan Ariely article “You are what you measure” in Harvard Business Review

And if we get it wrong, it can be dangerous and lead to the measure having an ineffective, or damaging, impact …

It[‘]s really easy to decide to measure something … and screw up a team beyond belief. For example, if I measure how productive individual programmers are, then it[‘]s to the advantage of individuals to focus on their own work and spend less (or no!) time helping others. Completely kills teamwork

Brian Button (Agile programmer and blogger) in “‘You get what you measure’ versus ‘what you measure you can manage'” – article no longer accessible)

So it’s worth getting it right … but it’s not so simple …

The most important things cannot be measured

W Edwards Deming

This is even more true as most things sit within complex systems and have an impact over the long-term and so can’t be easily isolated or measured within a single twelve-month performance appraisal period.

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Six ways to find great content for performance objectives

One of the worst things about being alive is having to write performance objectives.

As soul-destroying chores go, it’s right up there with ironing and DIY, but without the benefit of getting an ironed shirt or a wonky shelf at the end of it. All you get for your efforts is an “objective” which is usually just something measurable that no one else wants to do.

Indeed, most people’s objectives are about as demotivating to deliver as they were to write.

It needn’t be like this.

One problem (among many) is trying to find good content for objectives – this is especially true in repetitive jobs and after many years of trying to think of new things to do. It’s hard to keep coming up with anything remotely interesting or relevant, year after year, and Objectives Fatigue is likely to set in.

Objectives Fatigue (n) – having no ideas left for content to include in performance objectives

If this happens, objectives are then seen as a pointless nuisance, failing to add value to either the organization, the individual or the customer.

This post sets out six different ideas for getting good content for performance objectives.

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BIF: a simple feedback model

This post is about three things:

  • The 1 most important thing about feedback
  • The 2 types of feedback we can give
  • The 3 steps in the BIF feedback model I made up the other day

And, as a special bonus feature, 2 particular situations where we can use a variation of the model.

I wrote this post because when delivering management training, the topic of feedback often comes up. To give a quick answer with some valuable advice, I cobbled together some feedback models and developed BIF. I hope you find it useful.


What is feedback?

Feedback is information about past performance.

It is not necessarily actionable, it may be negative or positive, could be subjective or objective, accurate or a load of old nonsense … but it’s all feedback.

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To create great workplaces you need great managers

This is a great article from HBR about creating great places to work – in my opinion, one of the most interesting challenges in the workplace for leaders and managers.

The list chimes with most research about motivation: people being engaged in meaningful work, being respected and allowed to focus on what they’re good at … that sort of thing (rather than things like pay, holiday entitlement, and the frequency with which the manager buys donuts on a Friday), but I think the article misses one key point: great managers.

This is implied, but I think needs to be explicit.

To deliver on the six factors they identify, you necessarily need great managers and leaders – but it works the other ways around too. Without great managers, this list becomes hollow, a list of stated ambitions that sound clichéd but don’t change anything – so yes, great list, very worthy, but start with the managers … get that right, and the rest will plop into place with the right guidance.

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The management education myth

This is one of the most interesting articles I’ve ever read about management.

That might sound like a backhanded compliment, the phrase “interesting article about management” has more than a whiff of oxymoron about it – but I don’t mean it that way. Matthew Stewart’s article from The Atlantic is a really interesting challenge to the value of traditional management and business education.

He comes at it from the point of view of an intellectual philosopher who never went to business school. This background suggests that he’s more than comfortable with theory and ambiguity and the inevitable uncertainty of human organisations, so he’s not getting impatient with the wooliness of it all. Quite the opposite, it’s the hack “science” of the business school (and the management consultant) that he finds frustrating.

Imprecision and guesswork dressed up to look like posh sciency numbers.

So far, so good. I couldn’t agree more!

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Motivation Case Study: a demotivated office

When I read through my “Motivating people, not dogs” post after having published it, I wondered if my tough approach was unintentionally letting the manager off the hook.

It was this line that made me jump up with concern:

… if we make their lack of motivation more about us as managers rather than about them, we turn their failure into our failure, and give them an easy way out.

If this is so, then surely it works the other way around too? Can we turn our failure into their failure by not accepting that we are the major influence in the motivation of our teams.

The assumption throughout my argument was that the manager was competent – not perfect, but solid enough to live up to the end part of the post where I stated that it was the manager’s responsibility:

… to remove the demotivating factors as far as possible, and to manage the team properly …

… but you know what they say about assuming things: it makes an ass out of whoever it is that tells you what they say about assuming things.

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Management and leadership are two different things, not two different people.

Management and leadership are two different things, but that doesn’t mean that managers and leaders are two different people.

This chasm-like division between the fabulous leader whose job is to provide inspiration and direction, and the workmanlike manager who has to get into the weeds and deliver on the detail, is a load of nonsense.

Worse, it’s harmful.

I’ve been a manager for years, and I’ve only succeeded when I was also a good leader. When I’ve been a leader, I only got that right when I didn’t abdicate my responsibility as a manager.

My definition of leadership

Influencing, inspiring and empowering people to do something

My definition of management

Making stuff happen to the agreed quality standards on time and within budget

(Another definition of management is “an act of creating and maintaining such a business environment wherein the members of the organization can work together, and achieve business objectives efficiently and effectively” from Business Jargons – it’s OK, but I find it less clear)

Leadership and management: different, but also complementary.


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Stick to the rules, or it might go on too long

My daughter got a monopoly set for her birthday. She’s only seven, and already learning about the importance of greed and the pursuit of wealth. I guess they should have a new post-2008 Monopoly where the property is worth nothing and the bank charges you an administration fee when you pass Go.

The instructions specifically counsel against making up your own rules. It clearly states: “Stick to the rules” (“otherwise”, it explains, “the game can go on for too long”). The expectation that people will stick to the rules is another lesson that mightn’t translate all that well into the real-life world of business where the direction of travel seems to be toward Ayn-Rand’s objective selfish individualism.

I am sounding cynical.

I’m sorry, but I am a little … but I’m also hopeful that work can be a positive experience, and a lot of this is down to the people around us.

People at work

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On being annoying (an essential management skill)

This is the first in what might end up being a series of management epiphany posts: painful lessons I’ve learned from years of managing people.

I don’t like reducing these things to handy lists of top tips because although the advice can be useful, it can also create the impression that management is simply a series of quick fix behaviours you can learn on the internet.

It’s not.

So, I’m going to split up my advice and experience over a series of posts and try to explain myself, using theory and references where necessary – except this time, because it’s not necessary.

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My Theory of Teams and Teamworking

The word “team” is really a metaphor.

It’s now so ubiquitous that its sporting origin is almost forgotten, but one of the reasons we struggle to build team identity and spirit is because we have set the wrong expectations about what’s possible with our workplace team.

This is why the many haphazard ways to build team identity, spirit and generally improve happiness are so clunky and ineffective. These range from the boss making the tea, or buying donuts on a Friday, to away days on assault courses or games involving building bridges across rivers with only a few sheets of A4 and a half dozen paperclips.

The problem I have with all of this is twofold:

  • It’s used in place of proper management
  • It confuses two entirely different types of teams which exist in the workplace.

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