As a young man, I worked in a paint factory. We manufactured paints for the automotive and aluminum-siding industries. I was what was known as a mixer: My job was to take an order, essentially a recipe of mostly toxic ingredients, mix them in the proper proportions in a large mobile vat and deliver the vat to the testing department. To perform this complex task, I received no training, standard procedure in American industry at the time, but was simply told what my job was, given an order and directed to a waiting vat.
When I put something wrong in the mix and the inevitable catastrophe occurred – a vat of hideous green congealed simmering aluminum siding pigment – my boss screamed and cursed. His rant was mostly about the worthlessness of my generation, possibly true but not relevant to the problem at hand. He never bothered to explain to me what I had done wrong, usually a useful way of avoiding the same bad results in the future. Instead, he somehow fixed the "batch" himself and then disappeared. Having not been fired, I reported to work the next day. The boss said nothing, but looked at me as if something foul had been dragged into the room. He then gave me a new order form and sent me off to destroy some more shareholder value.
This man, his name lost in the mists of industrial history, may have been the anti-Christ of effective delegation. Over the years, however, he has had stiff competition for that title. Bad delegation is widespread, and effective delegation is not simple. It is made more difficult by work environments that are defined by scarce resources, limited investment in worker training and development, unprepared workers, managers who are unclear in their role of managing people, and increased pressures on management time. Managers who do not delegate effectively – or who have simply given up on the idea – generally produce one or more of the following negative outcomes:
— Because these managers lack confidence in staff to do the job, they adopt the "I'll just do it myself" approach. The manager is no longer a manager of people but becomes a super-worker. In the process, the manager's workload becomes overwhelming, leaving less and less time for supporting and overseeing the staff, and the staff stagnates and neither performs effectively nor develops as workers. The boss is increasingly isolated, busy in his or her office doing their work.
— When work is delegated, but not delegated effectively, there are different bad outcomes. The results are often unsatisfactory or incomplete and, over time, if this process is repeated, quality standards erode.
— The third outcome of ineffective delegation is that substandard worker performance becomes the norm, and organizational learning does not take place. Welcome to another unhappy and unproductive workplace.
The keys to effective delegation are pretty straightforward. Most managers run through the process as a kind of informal mental checklist, but it is worth making that list explicit. The starting point is a level of self-awareness that helps us to understand that the person to whom we are assigning the task or project may not do it as well as we would if we were doing it ourselves. What is important at this point is to understand just what our minimum standards or measures of success for the task are and to communicate them clearly. Then the question is: Does the person have the skills to meet these standards and produce this outcome?
Except for very short-term delegated assignments, there should be a formal check-in process. How is it going? Are we on track to finish on time? What issues or problems have arisen? Such a process should be simple and adapted to the skills and experience of the person assigned the task; there is a balance here between micromanaging and leaving the person adrift without direction or support. Useful questions: Does Mary typically complete her work without a lot of monitoring? Does Joe actively listen when I am giving instructions and describing expectations? A "no" answer to this question should be defined as a bad omen for the future. Does Susie use the authority that she has, or is she a "shrinking violet?" Can William use the technology needed to finish this assignment? Am I confident in Carol's ethics and values?
A final basic rule of delegation is, don't send someone to do a job without adequate resources to complete it in the time allotted. Getting this right involves some thought on the part of the manager. There are, unfortunately, lots of examples like my old paint factory boss. How much time is needed? Whose help will be useful? e.g., David worked on this last year, so you may want to talk to him. I'll give him a heads-up. It is unfair – but not unusual – to give people assignments that are not doable. In addition to bad outcomes, this practice produces resentment and a loss of trust in the manager.
In the end, effective delegation is a win-win. The manager's time is being used properly. Staff work is supported and reasonable, so that there should be a sense of accomplishment. There are opportunities for individual growth as people are incrementally stretched. And solid delegation is a tool for maintaining quality and high standards. To go back to the paint factory: In the end, through trial and error I became a decent mixer. Experience was a good teacher. But – and it's a huge "but" – the tuition for this education was awfully high. Better management and clearer delegation would have produced much better outcomes for everyone a much lower cost.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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