How to delegate well is always a key topic on our management skills courses.

It isn’t always easy to delegate, people may be reluctant.  That reluctance usually comes from a desire to keep control, or a concern that delegating a task translates into ‘dumping’ work on others.

Delegating tasks shouldn’t mean either of those things, though.

To delegate well you should:

  • Be clear on expectations
  • Leave the method to the individual
  • Set deadlines and progress checks
  • Remain available and encourage communication
  • Follow up and feedback

What’s most important?  Well, every step is important in its own right, but surprisingly the first – being clear on expectations – can be neglected.

Why? It’s all about setting objectives, what needs to be accomplished.  Surely that should be the easiest part?  After all, we work towards targets and objectives every day.  Ok, we should make sure they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) – but what else goes wrong?

Are expectations the same as objectives, though?  This is where things get a little personal.  Whether what you expect from a task, your assessment as to whether objectives have been met, differs from someone else’s.

We had a very interesting discussion during a recent session, when one of the group shared an example of delegation going wrong.

The individual, a recently promoted manager in a firm, had been delegated a project task by the senior partner.  I won’t go into lots of detail but it concerned moving towards a paperless office.  The manager was delighted to be given the project and set to gathering lots of ideas, discussing it with a number of colleagues, generating a great deal of enthusiasm along the way.  By the end of the week, she’d produced a 20 page report detailing each of the ideas and putting forward the one she, and most of her colleagues, had favoured.

The senior partner was not pleased.  He had wanted her ideas, sure, but was looking for a high level summary and an idea of costs and benefits, in a format that he could discuss at the next management board.  This was a decision that the board were going to make and somehow it seemed that the most people in the firm believed that the decision had already been taken and that they were moving to the new system asap!

The manager wasn’t happy either as she had spent many hours on the project, believing she was doing what was required, and done a good job at that.

So, what was the main thing that went wrong.  Expectations were not agreed at the outset.  Misunderstanding ensued and lots of work was wasted and goodwill was lost – not just between the manager and partner – but potentially with others in the firm.

So, what would have helped?  How can you be sure that your expectations are clear when delegating? How can you make sure that you are working towards the same expectations as your boss?

Two things are important:

  1. Recognising that people have different perceptions. Your obvious and my obvious are not necessarily the same.  What you have communicated and what the other person has understood, may be different.
  2. Careful communication. Thoroughly explaining not only the objectives of the project but also your expectations and making sure you are SMART about it!

Try to communicate

  • What needs to be done
  • When it needs to be done by
  • Why it needs to be done
  • Who needs to be involved (and who doesn’t)

What if the briefing had gone along these lines:

“We are considering moving to a paperless office.  Please could you investigate possible options and let me have a high-level summary briefing paper, including costs and benefits, by next Friday.  I need this to brief the management team so we can make a decision about whether we investigate this in more detail.  The paper should be no more than two pages, and I’d anticipate this would take you no more than a couple of days”

There may still have been some misunderstanding, don’t forget the other key steps in effective delegate (including regular check ins and progress checks) but a lot of angst might have been avoided.

We’re getting lots of requests for interpersonal training at the moment. To see how we could help your firm, please contact us.

Nicky Clough, March 2022

Delegation