In his first blog for In Professional Development, leadership and management expert William McKee discusses delegation in the workplace, with an in-depth look at the darker side of delegation.

 

Delegation, what is it good for?

Quite a lot actually.

Most people will have heard of ‘the art of delegation’, in one form or another.  And I should probably start by acknowledging the elephant in the room, the dark side of delegation.

A lot of people will have experience of being ‘delegated’ to – somewhat akin to your neighbour leaving a flaming bag of poo on your doorstep. Most see it coming, an awful task that your manager doesn’t have time to deal with or doesn’t want to deal with themselves; it’s overdue, under resourced and probably not possible. So rather than do the responsible thing, your manager decides to send it your way. And when it all goes wrong, it’s your fault.

Congratulations, you’ve just experienced the dark side of delegation.

This is unfortunately all too common within organisations, and categorically not what I would like to talk about or even think about as delegation. These instances get the name of delegation, and in turn gives delegation a poor name. When really, it’s just poor leadership and management.

 

So why does this experience of being passed a poisoned chalice get confused with delegation?

The reason is this, there is one key similarity – setting someone up to fail and good, responsible, effective delegation both require a transfer of responsibility from a manager to their team.

But why should a manager be transferring responsibility to their people? Surely that means their people end up doing more, and the manager is left scot-free hiding away somewhere browsing videos on YouTube to their heart’s content? It all comes down to intent.

Captain David Marquet is a former US nuclear submarine commander, and author of the book ‘Turn the Ship Around’ which tells the story of the changes he made in his leadership to take the USS Santa Fe from the worst performing submarine in the fleet to winning the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy for most improved ship in the Fleet.

He recounts mistakenly giving an order which was impossible to carry out and then realising that the crew were, rather than asking for clarification, or challenging the order, attempting to carry it out! The previous culture on the Santa Fe had produced willing drones who would follow any instruction from their captain. But that meant the captain was only person on the ship who was responsible for thinking. Sure, others were thinking, but they were not prepared to share those thoughts or act on them.

 

Captain Marquet quickly realised it was only a matter of time before he made a more serious mistake.

So, he started trying to involve the crew in decision making – instead of barking an order at the helmsman, he would ask things like ‘what do you think we need to do now?’ This was a slow and uncomfortable process for a captain worried about his ship and a crew unused to being included. Captain Marquet is refreshingly honest about how he would often become frustrated or feel the need to snap back into issuing orders and taking control. All the while however the fear of a mistaken order happening again sat on his shoulders, so he persisted engaging the crew, asking for their thoughts, and resisting as best he could the urge to tell them what to do.

One of Captain Marquet’s brilliant insights, which has been arrived at many times by many business and management thinkers, and I think because it highlights quite a timeless dynamic, is that the people nearest the current information are best placed to make some decisions, but the ‘leadership’s’ desire to centralise decision making usually puts someone in the hot-seat making choices based on missing or second or even third hand information. Captain Marquet advocates to put decisions where the information is, have the chief engineer who is next to the engine make the decisions about it, have the helmsman with his hands on the controls make the decisions about that etc…

On one level this is painfully obvious – most common sense is when it’s pointed out – and to a large degree many people would argue that that’s what their organisations do. Yes, the Chief Executive is not signing off on the order for more printer ink, but this is not really the kind of stuff Captain Marquet was getting at – he was meaning the risky stuff, the business development opportunities. Obviously, the helmsman was responsible for maintaining a course, or depth, but complete control of where to steer the sub? Obviously, the chief engineer was in control of topping up the oil or whatever, but complete control of when to shut down the engine?

What happens if you suddenly give someone responsibility for big decisions that they have never had before? They will probably make mistakes. But that’s ok! (if they don’t you got lucky) Can you think of any skill you developed to a high level without making mistakes along the way?

 

We are getting to the real heart of effective delegation.

It requires leaders to have a completely different way of looking at their role, and I think this is the bit that often gets missed – it’s not just about giving people things to do, or maybe giving people some slightly increased status or responsibilities.

On the one hand are leaders who see themselves as the primary and best decision maker, as was the case when Captain Marquet was issuing the orders and everyone else was a drone. They will never really delegate; they will set up systems of information gathering and control and hope they never make a bad call.

Yet on the other hand, as Captain Marquet realised when he became aware of his fallibility, leaders can see themselves as responsible for encouraging the people closest to the relevant information to become competent decision makers. ‘Competent’ is a huge word in that sentence.

 

Of course, people won’t be competent straight off the bat.

They might be scared, embarrassed or just resistant, and of course they would, there is much more risk involved in thinking for yourself than simply following orders! But it’s the leaders’ job to pro-actively build the competence. If leaders think their people are not competent to make decisions, its not a reflection on the people it’s a reflection on the leader – you might have the wrong people in the seats, or you haven’t invested the time to raise their competence, but that’s on you, not them.

Captain Marquet gives a brilliant example of the power of delegation – imagine two submarines. On the first is one person doing the thinking and one hundred and thirty-four others doing what they are told. On the other submarine, one hundred and thirty-five people empowered to use their minds, solve problems and make high quality decisions. Which sub won the award?

 

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