The fine art of effective workplace delegation

Managers can't issue assignments to employees and expect instant results; it requires active involvement on both sides

Dear Bob ...

I have a near revolt on my hands. My view of the situation is that I try to delegate to my employees, but most of them just don't have what it takes to carry their assignments through to completion. My style is to give people a lot of latitude, as well as honest and direct feedback about how they did.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: What's the best way to serve up a reality check? Bob tells you how to kill employees' bad ideas -- but not their desire to innovate. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

My employees are telling me that if this many of them aren't doing well, the problem must be me and not them. I've been in this position for about six months, by the way, and all of the people reporting to me were already in their positions before I started.

What do you think? Could it be me? Or have I simply inherited a mediocre team?

- Trying to Lead

Dear Trying ...

You haven't given me anywhere near enough to go on. Based on what you have given me -- and what you haven't said -- I'm guessing the problem is you.

More specifically, I'm guessing the problem is that you've mistaken "fire and forget" assignments with effective delegation. It's a critical skill for anyone in a leadership role (and one of the eight tasks of leadership in my book on leadership, as it happens).

No question, your employees have missed a trick or two themselves. It takes two to do a bad job of delegation, and if I'm right about your not understanding how to go about it, it also appears your employees aren't very good at being delegated to.

I can't give you the complete picture in a blog post (if I could, it wouldn't have needed a full chapter to cover). Here are the three essential elements, to get you started:

  1. You and the employee need to have the same understanding of what success will look like. If you want a tangible work product, for example, say so and offer some sense of its ultimate form.
  2. Give the employee some time to construct a battle plan, and review the plan  together until you're both confident it's the right way to go about the job.
  3. Meet on a regular basis to review progress and correct your course. The most common mistake business leaders make when delegating is the "fire and forget" approach I mentioned earlier. If you delegate with the instruction, "Tell me when you're done," then you're guilty as charged. You should start out meeting at least once a week. You can reduce the frequency of update meetings later, when you're sure your employee is on the right track.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said on the subject, but this should give you a decent start.

If you've been doing this all along, then the problem very well might be a weak team. But don't start with that assumption, because fixing a broken team is much more work than fixing how you go about delegating to the one you have.

- Bob

This story, "The fine art of effective workplace delegation," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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