Delegation: Are you getting enough? Part One: What Stops Us Delegating?

Delegation is - potentially - one of the most valuable tools any manager has. But so often we witness the curious paradox of an over-burdened manager leading a team of under-used talent. Why does this happen? Is it really that managers don't have the time, or is it the fear of sharing the spotlight?

For some managers, delegation may well be like sex: they get the distinct impression that others are doing it much more than they are. "I'm sorry, Emma, I've got a headache. Perhaps I could delegate something to you some other time…"

But is that really true? Does the individual really not have the time to delegate? Or is the exclamation a smokescreen for the fact that, deep down, the manager concerned doesn't want to delegate?

Fear and Trust

Gerard Hargreaves of the training organisation MaST, explored managers apparent reluctance to delegate, "It's easier to think 'Oh I'll get on and do it myself, or I don't think that anyone can do the job quite as well as I can.' But it's really about fear and trust; the fear of letting go and trusting the team to do a good job."

Quicker Doing It Yourself

There are managers who will not delegate because, when they weigh up the time needed to brief the individual to take over the task, they point out that it probably would have been quicker to do the task themselves.

Of course you'll have already spotted the inherent contradiction that lies in the statement: if they were able to delegate their workload successfully to others than they wouldn't be under so much pressure. And they're contributing to a pressure that prevents them from delivering on a key area of a manager's responsibility: the development of their direct reports.

This 'circle of unreason' has to be broken, but broken not by a change in a single behaviour, but broken by a fundamental shift in attitude.

Not a Spontaneous Act

Delegation is not about an occasional, spontaneous act of passing a task over but the deliberate and considered act of developing others through the transfer of meaningful tasks.

If direct reports are seldom delegated to, then any experience of it happening may well be a dissatisfying one: for both parties. Managers can only develop the skills to delegate through constantly practising the art and refining how they carry it out. Those delegated to are also learning some new skills: accepting, understanding and implementing new - and personally stretching - responsibilities.

So delegation must become a habit, not an occasional practice. With each successively delegated task the direct report is growing in confidence and ability. Yes, the first time might be longer, but constant practise shortens the time taken to transfer the task as they begin to sharpen their powers of initiative and perception.

Now, suddenly, one of the key objections to delegating - "I haven't the time…" - withers beneath a double whammy, because time delegating is considerably pared down, and one task has now moved from the manager's 'To Do list' to the direct report's 'To Do list'.

But the above assumes that the manager has a genuine desire to delegate. What about those who complain that they haven't the time, but really - if they were honest with themselves - haven't the inclination.

Sharing the Spotlight

As we implied at the outset of this article, a reluctance to delegate can sometimes be rooted in fear. After all, the direct report may go on to carry out the task much better than the manager ever did. And where would that leave the manager?

"Nonsense!" the manager would undoubtedly shout. But would you agree? After all, have there been occasions in your career where you've felt that you've been deliberately held back? That the chance to stretch yourself was deliberately withheld because your manager was reluctant to share the spotlight?

Managers obsessed by the maintenance of their perceived position within the hierarchy will be reluctant to blur the distinctions between them and their reporting team. They secretly believe that the visible expression of an individual's ability - especially outside their usual sphere of influence - raises their profile at the expense of their manager.

Better to bleat about the overbearing time constraints imposed by the pressure of work than do something positive about it. OK, they might have to be carried out on a stretcher by the cardiac arrest team on a hasty onward journey, but better that than lose the esteem of their colleagues and peer group!

Of course, there are many managers who don't have this problem. They know the value of sound delegation, and the benefits it brings to everyone.

How do they delegate? Well, next month we take you through the key activities they employ, and why the 'one-delegating-style-fits-all' approach rarely works.