Do managers even understand “delegation?”

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We’ve been working in the standard white-collar way since probably the 1950s, and admittedly a lot has changed. Tech is the big thing. Business models are the other. A lot of the basic shit, though, is the same. You still need to communicate. People still need to set priority. There needs to be defined job roles and some degree of clarity.

None of those things have changed that much since 1955, and yet we’re still awful at almost all of them. That’s probably why so many people are disengaged by work, but I guess it really doesn’t matter so long as these companies are making money and these people are getting paid salaries. Right? Right.

One of the other concepts in this bucket — stuff that hasn’t changed but we’re still not good at — is delegation. We know from research that being a good delegator can make you more money, but most managers are pretty shitty at what “delegation” actually is.

To wit, via Art Markman:

Managers need to stop thinking of passing off responsibilities as delegating — period. If you do, then you will only assign your employees high-level tasks when you don’t have time to do them. Until then, you will continue doing everything yourself. This is not an uncommon behavior. After all, you are probably better at doing your job than your direct reports, who have less experience in your role.

When you assign someone a task for the first time — with no prior training — simply because you are unavailable to do it, their chances of succeeding are slim. You also run the risk of damaging team morale.

Art Markman, University of Texas professor

I’d say these above paragraphs are true of every place I’ve ever worked full-time or observed.

This is how many managers think about delegation:

  • “I’m so fucking slammed.”
  • “What can I off-load?”
  • “I can’t off-load the stuff closest to revenue or the power core of people, because I want to be attached to those projects for my own relevance and trajectory.”
  • “I’ll off-load the little stuff, but again, I’m super slammed.”
  • “So I can’t possibly be bothered to teach anyone how to do anything.”
  • “Hopefully they figure it out, or I’ll fix it and tell everyone how I worked until 11pm last night.”

That’s pretty much the standard white-collar middle management arc right there.

Meanwhile, a quick glance at the work execution-level:

  • “Oh cool, I got a project with seemingly more responsibility.”
  • “Oh wait, it doesn’t seem to have any more responsibility at all.”
  • “OK, no one told me really how the outcome was supposed to look, sound, or feel.”
  • “I’m really on my own here.”
  • “No one is even answering emails.”
  • “Oh man, what the fuck?”

Those are the two sides of it.

I once had a middle manager hit me with this: “Do a case study on our relationship with this airline. Look in this doc for some comments.” He then sent me a doc with absolutely no context whatsoever, and no info on what he wanted formatting-wise, length, anything.

I did it the best I could. I ended up under six buses and two trains and got called into a few meetings about “accountability.”

I virtually guarantee you he thought he was delegating.

That’s how most people view “delegating.” And that’s a problem.

How should we view delegating? (Sorry, don’t feel like headers today.)

This is what delegating actually is:

  • Identifying people who can take on more work
  • Training them what the work should look and feel like
  • Giving them context
  • Allowing them to practice in low-pressure situations
  • Working with them
  • Guiding
  • Coaching
  • Taking an interest in their career development

I know there’s “never any time!” — common refrain at most white-collar spots — but for delegation to work as a way to productively accomplish tasks and make everyone more money (which I think are the two primary goals of work as a whole), we need a different way of conceptualizing what “delegating” even is.

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