Opinion and Analysis
Why most managers don’t delegate
Posted Wednesday, July 18 2012 at 19:18
Why is it that the business of delegation is so fraught? Among all the things managers must learn to do well, this is one of the most critical. And yet just about every organisation with which I work finds delegation all but impossible to get right. People worry about there not being enough of it — and these people comprise both the delegators and those to whom they should be delegating.
A couple of heads of state have made their reputation as champions of delegation: Ronald Reagan was one, and the other is closer to home. Oh for the apparent serenity with which they have gone about their lofty business, leaving the grubby details of day-to-day operations to lesser mortals.
What’s so special about them? And what’s so unspecial about the other 99 per cent of leaders who find themselves drowning in the operational depths of their organisations? As I listen to managers moan about the problem— either their own or, at least as likely, that of managers at lower levels —all kinds of justifications emerge.
Commonest among these is that they don’t trust their subordinates. This surrounded-by-incompetence syndrome is widespread. “They make too many mistakes,” we hear; “They don’t own their responsibilities,” many say. “I wish they’d be bolder at making decisions,” others complain; and “Why can’t they be more reliable and responsive?”
Are such comments universally justified? While those below the boss are indeed often timid or indifferent, it is often the fault of the very character who is complaining. Bosses who are control freaks, micromanagers, undue perfectionists, are intrinsically untrusting. They feel that most of humankind is unacceptably less competent than themselves. ‘He won’t understand,” I hear them sigh, and “It will take forever, and I’ll only have to correct all her mistakes”. Of course such pessimistic attitudes are readily apparent to their subordinates.
How demoralising, how demotivating… how de-energising for these workers. “As I never seem to get anything right,” many subordinates conclude, “there’s no point in even trying — my boss will only criticise me anyway, never appreciate me. I just can’t win. She thinks she’s so clever, so let her just get on with it,” they shrug.
Under-delegating bosses imagine that all other managers over-delegate, taking irresponsible risks. But what they fail to understand is that by avoiding the risks that come with delegation they guarantee other serious negative consequences. Not only do they crush the morale of their subordinates, but they become overwhelmed by operational activity and can’t focus on more strategic issues.
They’re so busy chasing urgent tasks that the important ones get squeezed out— not to mention that their working hours expand to fill far too much of their lives.
Let us not hide from the fact that some micromanagers actually revel in the operational chasing. Their aptitude and hence their appetite for strategic thinking is limited. All their pre-managerial experience has been at the operational level, and they’re ill-at-ease in the upper layers of strategy. It’s just beyond their comfort zones.
A related phenomenon is insecure managers, who fail to delegate because they fear that subordinates will outshine them and so threaten their position. Is their fear rational? Have they been promoted to their level of incompetence? Or might their concerns be less than justified? If they were more confident in their own capabilities, more ready to be proud of the achievements of those who work under them, would life not become better for everyone? Would they not migrate from a lose-lose scenario to a win-win one? A great incentive for change is that their present posture does not pass unnoticed— people know exactly what is going on, and why.
So many confused and confusing hang ups. Resulting in either woefully inadequate or woefully incompetent delegation. Yet the do’s and don’ts of effective delegation have been known for as long as organisations have existed. It is not in the 21st century that we have suddenly figured out what it takes to make delegation work well, and how to delegate in a way that positions all concerned for success rather than for failure.
It’s an inconvenient fact that to delegate for success you must invest significant time, before during and after the task in hand.
That’s what makes it delegating, and not abrogating or dumping. Thought has to be given to what to delegate and to whom; the purpose and content of the task must be explained, detailing what is expected; then the person must be allowed sufficient space in which to pursue the matter, yet be monitored at appropriate milestones; and finally the completed work must be received back, reviewed— and, all being well, the person should be appreciated and recognised.
Much of management is about coaching, about growing and strengthening others, so they can take on more tomorrow than they were able to yesterday.
It is about developing the competence and the confidence of your staff, enabling them to take on some of what you have been doing, so you can focus on bigger things. And there is no better way to grow others than through the learning-by-doing of delegation.