Does a good leader have to be an effective delegator? This, for some, is a rhetorical question with the only possible answer being Yes. For others, effective delegation is not a must in order to be able to lead. Many leaders consider their direct involvement in every aspect of the day-to-day running of the business to be the best way to ensure its success and growth.
Well, I’m here to argue for the former, as a firm believer that effective delegation is an important milestone in the journey to becoming a good leader.
I also see effective delegation as an integral aspect of the overall psychological safety of a team. Ultimately, if you’re looking out for your workers’ psychological safety, that in itself is a real indicator of good leadership in my book!
I first started thinking about how delegation affects teams when I was working as a trainee solicitor at a law firm, right after graduation.
As a newbie, I had very little legal experience and my command of that pesky, elusive language, Legalese, was minimal. I’d often come into the office to find a gift left on my chair the night before: a heavy, messy bundle of papers with a post-it note that simply read “PLEASE DEAL”.
The work environment didn’t encourage asking questions and I’d usually have no clue as to what was, in fact, expected of me. These scary piles of documents that came with no user manual.
Because it was rarely clear what the task involved, I’d spend significant amounts of time trying to figure out the specifics of what was required before I could actually start the work itself.
This was a really inefficient use of my time and the work, largely based on guesswork, wasn’t of the highest quality.
As for the levels of psychological safety I felt coming into work every morning… I’d say they were fairly low. When you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing but you’re expected to “just get on with it”, you end up in a limbo of uncertainty and with a constant fear of failing.
In my next department as a trainee, the partner supervising me preferred to do most of the work himself. This stressed him out because there weren’t enough hours in the day for him to get through his to-do list on his own.
At the same time, I was sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs, despite repeat requests for more work and offering to assist him with some of his more pressing cases.
This felt like a catch-22 scenario: a constant worry of being perceived as doing no work (and not pulling my weight) even when I was asking for stuff to do and given none.
A Better way – Being an Effective Delegator…
What these two examples have in common is the fact that, in both situations, effective delegation could have helped everyone involved.
The impact of effective delegation is twofold. First, it frees the manager up to focus on matters which would benefit from their direct attention, diverting other tasks to those who can deal with them just as well.
Sure, this demands spending some time at the outset to supervise and set the team member up to succeed. At busy periods, this might seem like an inefficient use of what little resources the manager has.
“I might as well just do it myself because I know what I’m doing and can do it better and more quickly” is the sort of thought process you’d commonly come up against in this situation.
It is often challenging for managers to transition from doing to leading. It can happen that managers routinely hold on to work thinking their ability to spin many plates will be seen as admirable. In reality, there’s only so far you can go juggling an ever-growing number of tasks at the same time. That journey rarely leads to being an effective leader.
Putting time and effort in to supporting your staff, however, can really pay dividends later on. Once the team member knows what they’re supposed to do and how to do it, the manager might not have to ask much more than “PLEASE DEAL”. They know that the work is likely to be carried out quickly and efficiently. This can free them up to get on with their own pressing matters.
With this approach, the manager has to disregard ego and acknowledge that, objectively, others can perform the tasks just as well. Or certainly well enough.
Sure, there may be mistakes. At times, there may be a need for some hand-holding. But making time for delegation and trusting in team members’ abilities is often at the heart of good leadership.
You may even find that you have to give up work you enjoy doing yourself, so that team members get to try some tasks they don’t have experience with, yet. That, ultimately, can be a further sign of strength. You are enabling your organisation to operate more efficiently and giving your team members a professional stretch.
The positive effect of empowering your team members through delegation cannot be overstated.
Patient and supportive guidance from management can go a long way to eliminate feelings of uncertainty and lack of direction. Sharing your knowledge and experience with your team members, whilst not being “married to” the need for everything to be done your way, can be an indicator of strong, self-assured leadership.
It demonstrates a willingness to trust in your team. It shows an appreciation of what the organisational priorities are and how best to achieve their fulfilment. Moreover, it paves the path for psychological safety to thrive.
To do this successfully, it is important that, when delegating, you are mindful of defining the parameters of the task for the team member.
A clear explanation of the task’s relevance and its deadlines is a useful start. Allocate some time for any necessary training or guidance. You could try suggesting resources which might assist the team member in carrying out the work and support their development.
And remember – your team member’s development plays a crucial part in this. When delegating, it’s a good idea to bear in mind (and seek a balance between) the organisation’s strategic outlook and aims and the team member’s own developmental objectives.
Delegation for delegation’s sake will only take you so far. This is why the task’s relevance is important. If the task is meaningless in the grand scheme of the organisation’s strategy and/or the team member’s own growth, it might be worth considering whether a different task may be more suited.
See the wood and the trees
The suggestions are simple ideas. Yet, when you, the manager, are over-stretched and can’t see the wood from the trees, the temptation may be to increase the pressure on yourself rather than sharing the load.
Take a moment to consider this and whether you really need to do everything yourself. Effective delegation can strengthen your leadership, as it continues to create more time in your diary for the matters you (and only you) must deal with. Simultaneously, it empowers your team members to grow and develop.
Surely, that’s a win:win, right?