When You Get Tired of Telling Everyone What to Do - Try This Instead

One of the toughest transitions successful doers find as they progress into leadership roles is mastering the art of delegation. When the job becomes more about others getting things done, many of the skills that were part of your success formula in the past lose their effectiveness.  The "doer" habit that gets you noticed, gets you promoted, and opens the opportunity for further advancement doesn't always serve you well when it comes to motivating others to do the "doing."

In the 1990 Harvard Business Review classic, "In Praise of Hierarchy," Elliott Jacques describes how being employed is, in essence, to be accountable to do particular work. Accordingly, a manager is responsible for the output of several people doing work. Not for actually doing the work! Fundamentally most of us understand this and appreciate bosses that let us do our work with the right approach to support us. We all set out to be this kind of leader, and then at least once in our leadership journey, to quote one of my coaching clients, end up, “in the whirlwind.” We end up telling people what to do, get disappointed when they don’t do it like we would do it, don’t think for themselves, and then we end up doing it ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle leading to exhaustion.

Break the Cycle – Teach Me How to Delegate!

Many of my clients identify delegation as a development area for them to focus on.  Sometimes highlighted by 360 degree feedback, leaders are also searching to remedy their own workload overwhelm through more effective delegation.  There are articles and training courses on delegation. Yet, it is an elusive skill - it sounds easy, but in practice, it is hard to do. Learning to delegate well is a milestone moment for many aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs. It is a breakthrough for getting the most out of your team, and yourself.

Optimal allocation of work maximizes value and informs managers where to delegate and where to take action themselves.   Yet, that successful handoff to others can still be difficult to achieve.    

When managers communicate the context, stimulate helpful reflection, and allocate useful resources, to support delegated work, they enable the successful completion of work at the right level in the organization.

How does this look in practice? Communicating context is clarifying the big picture; goals of the organization and the team; connectivity between work the team does and everyone else; shared opportunities and challenges across the organization; and, with what is going on outside of the group. Context is data for people trying to figure out what to do. The insight that people will accept strategy others explain to them but are more likely to act on strategy and ideas that they come up with is the principle behind this. Give people the same data, and they will often draw similar conclusions on what it means and what to do – and because they own their work, the probability of successful implementation goes way up. I recently heard someone say that successful execution is the result of the, “Idea X the Motivation to Implement."  Effectively communicating context is a powerful force to create great ideas and build motivation.

Stimulating and engaging in thoughtful reflection about context and the direction forward becomes your leadership superpower – especially with your most reliable performers. It looks like an excellent two-way conversation about your employee's ideas, their completed work (success and failure), lessons learned, and their ability to move forward. It firmly anchors accountability where it should be – with the person paid to do the work. The reflection conversation elaborates on context and develops the basis to determine how to allocate resources. A useful technique is to lead with open questions that create deep thought and options - positioning you as the manager to listen more than talk. Asking relevant questions to elaborate, affirm, and reflect and then responding creates a new paradigm of feedback that is helpful, appreciated, and sought. Remember, you have faith in these people!

As an executive and now as a leadership coach, I hear resources described in terms of budget or headcount. It is giving people the tools they need to do the job. Sometimes these are scarce, and even not available – these are some of the tradeoffs you will make as a leader.  What other resources are we talking about? It ties right back to the context discussion – how do you, as a leader, influence context in the organization? What is your influence on other teams, on the decision apparatus, on building valuable relationships outside of the team? How effective are you at harnessing tangible resources from elsewhere? In a word – power, in practice – how you use it to enable your team.

If you replace the whirlwind with a cycle of Context-Reflection-Resources, you will find the rewards of delegation for you, and help your team with their work today, and their overall capabilities for the future.