Getting Delegation Right
One of the most frustrating parts of being a manager is setting expectations with employees. Often managers were promoted because of promising individual contributions. But managing people is very different from managing work.
Many managers know that they should be delegating, but have no idea how to actually delegate.
When Delegation goes Wrong
A recent example of how poorly this can go comes from a senior manager at a large financial institution we’ll call Beth. In a past role, Beth had been used to relying on her domain-specific knowledge to get things done. Her team did what she said. If something was wrong, they came to Beth and she had the answer.
But after a re-org, Beth was given a new team where she didn’t have as much past experience. She was managing more senior employees who got frustrated with the “I’ll tell you what to do” approach. And Beth got swamped with meetings since she wanted to have her arms around every decision.
I wish there was a happy ending to this story, but she didn’t get direct coaching or support to change. Her team ended up giving her the lowest engagement score of any manager in their department and multiple top performers ended up leaving the company.
Five Levels of Delegation
Understanding when and how to delegate is critical to upleveling as a manager. The five levels of delegation model enables managers + employees to align and do more work that matters without friction:
- Do what I say
- Report Back
Let’s review what each level entails:
Level 1: Do what I say
This is when a manager tells someone exactly what to do. This needs to happen when someone is new to work. But this approach doesn’t work when it becomes ongoing micromanagement. That said, this is a good place to start as a leader. Model what you want to happen. If you can’t show someone how to do something, you likely don’t know how to do it.
Level 2: Research
At this level you give an employee a task to go learn, then come back and share what was found. No decision-making enabled yet but can be very helpful to a leader who needs to get information for a decision.
Level 3: Approve
This is the most common delegation level. Go make a decision, but I have to give approval before moving forward. This comes in a lot of flavors from very top-down to fairly light approval.
Level 4: Report Back
This is where things really start cooking. Go research, make a decision, move forward, and then let me know when you did. This is a good place with a lot of autonomy.
Level 5: Delegated
This is full delegation, where even reporting back isn’t necessary. Full trust is extended to handle the decision, situation, or task at hand.
Questions you to ask yourself as a manager:
- How do you delegate?
- Where are each of your employees with various tasks?
- Are you giving enough direction when needed?
- Are you giving enough autonomy when needed?
“Pain with delegation happens when a manager and employee aren’t on the same page.” – Ryan Seamons
Delegation is hard but worth it
Learning how to delegate can be quite a challenge. Pain with delegation happens when a manager and employee aren’t on the same page. One of my favorite cooking personalities, Alton Brown, put it well:
“I’m going from doing all of the work to having to delegate the work – which is almost harder for me than doing the work myself. I’m a lousy delegator, but I’m learning.” – Alton Brown, celebrity chef
Becoming aware of this model is a good first step. Revisiting the earlier example, Beth could benefit from awareness, both of the model as well as her capacity. She, like many managers, had trouble jumping from the expert manager who can handle everything to the more of a director manager who knows when and how to delegate (especially at levels 3, 4, and 5).
Something you can do is consider which level you expect from each of your employees. Many management issues come back to misalignment of expectations, especially around how much autonomy is given. When a manager expects level 4 and the employee thinks level 2 is all that’s needed, that’s going to be hard. Vice versa is also true.
Having alignment conversations is hard. It’s no fun to communicate that you are disappointed and things need to change. It can be hard to see or admit your own part in the problem.
Communicating about delegation takes time and can feel like a waste of time when there’s work to be done. But sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. Aligning on expectations upfront helps you avoid pitfalls like misalignment in expectations, poor quality of work, and painful surprises.
Knowing how to delegate turns someone from working in their business to really building the business. The best leaders are masters of delegation and can focus on deciding what work needs to happen versus doing the work.
Let me know if you have any stories to share or questions about delegation on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Guest Contributor Ryan Seamons is founder and CEO of Groove, a work experience design company that helps leaders improve engagement using step-by-step products and services to create work environments individuals love. Grove's resource, Career Conversations, is used by managers at companies like DoorDash, Amazon, and Intuit to give employees control of their career growth. Ryan has worked at the intersection of technology and talent for over a decade at places like LinkedIn, Degreed, and Sprintwell. Ryan also writes Patterns, a weekly newsletter with actionable tips about designing delightful work experiences.