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Delegation: why many leaders get it so wrong

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 11 Jan 2023

Micromanagement is the bane of teams led by those who will not or cannot invest trust in their people. Chris Pearse offers advice on the art of letting go.

Delegation is a cornerstone of leadership, without which no organisation can thrive. In fact, it’s a bit of a no-brainer – if you don’t pass tasks on to someone else, you’ll burn out while those around you twiddle their thumbs.

It’s so obvious, why wouldn’t you delegate as much as you possibly can to your team? That’s the only way a business can scale effectively. So it may come as some surprise that many of the leaders that I have worked with, while knowing exactly how, why, what and to whom to delegate, frequently get it so wrong.

Why is delegating important?

To find out why this syndrome is endemic in many organisations, let’s take a look at the word delegate, which comes from the Latin ‘legare’ meaning to send with a commission. The prefix de means away from, so to delegate means to send someone away with a task. 

The act of sending away is critical here. It used to mean that the delegate was isolated and incommunicado, with no recourse to whoever sent them. Therefore, they had to carry a degree of autonomy, responsibility and authority to get the job done – they couldn’t just turn up and say: “Hang on, I’ll ask my boss.” Today there is no isolation and we have 24/7 connectivity with colleagues. The same technology that brings us so many benefits also subconsciously encourages leaders to delegate the task, but without the responsibility that would once have been taken for granted.

Instead of being compelled to invest trust in the delegate, the leader can keep tabs on progress from moment to moment, questioning, assessing, intervening and directing at will.

This withholding of responsibility is both insidious and pernicious and often takes place initially with neither the delegator nor the delegate being fully aware of it.

Micromanagement is the bane of teams led by those who will not or cannot invest trust in their people. All too frequently, managers are quick to confide in others that they cannot trust certain members of the team to get their jobs done. Which begs the question: Why are you employing people you cannot trust?

My observation is that far from retaining untrustworthy employees, managers project the lack of trust they have in themselves onto others. Just as in many other scenarios, the workplace becomes a mirror for our inner worlds of thinking, feeling and perception.

The implications of delegating tasks without full responsibility, accountability and authority are broad. When a manager withholds accountability for the delegated task, it demeans the delegate, depriving them of the opportunity to learn and grow – relegating them to the status of a menial robot. Over time, the manager will attract those that need constant intervention, while repelling those that want to uncover their potential, to be the best they can be.

Furthermore, the manager deprives themselves of the same opportunities, prioritising the need to constantly monitor delegated activities among more and more staff. This is a root cause of poor performance and productivity, let alone stress, burnout, conflict and anxiety.

How to delegate

There are well-proven links between long-term anxiety and clinical depression – the prognosis for mental health is not a good one. The challenge for all of us as leaders is to delegate not just the task in hand, but also the full responsibility that goes with it. How do you do it?

Firstly, you need to be certain that each and every member of your team is up to the responsibilities you need to place on them. If they aren’t you either train them, or change them. Doing nothing is not an option.

Secondly, when you interact with any member of your team, see them as humans with potential far beyond what you or they may perceive – don’t let your biases, impressions and mindsets diminish them in any way. You cannot deprecate another without deprecating yourself. Remember that good leaders get people to do things they didn’t think were possible.

Thirdly, when it comes to delegation, invest full trust in them to the point where you can walk away and forget about the task you have delegated, however uncomfortable that may be at first. Replace apprehension with trust.

Finally, if results appear sub-optimal, you will have plenty of data available to increase the chances of the desired outcome next time around. The benefits to those involved are inestimable.

A key tenet of leadership that supports good delegation is that you are not responsible for your people. This often comes as a surprise even to seasoned managers. The reason this always holds true – at least for functioning adults – is that they are responsible for themselves and their behaviour. 

We are each responsible for our lives, our speech and actions – no one else. The leader is responsible purely for creating an environment in which everyone can grow in their capacity to take on new and exciting responsibilities. Give responsibility whenever you can and your delegation will unleash everyone’s potential, including your own.

• Chris Pearse is the author of The Broken CEO: how to be the leader you always wanted to be.

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