Understanding Why Most Delegations Aren’t Working

Today one of the buzz words growing in prominence is – delegation.

The more companies we see downsizing, the more people will express to me they’re delegating this responsibility or that. Then as night follows day complaints begin to emerge as they begin having “issues” in their delegations such as no realized work load improvements.

The problem isn’t in the delegating. The problem usually results from not understanding – they aren’t delegating anything.

Far too many confuse delegation with dealing out some form of unsupervised tasks or assignments. The two are not the same nor equal; however many use one, but call it the other. Below is my description of true delegation.

  • Delegation is to give an assignment or task to an individual or department which is empowered with the tools, or authority necessary to complete the assignments without needing approval or oversight from the executive.

The key word of that statement is – empowered. And empowered means just that. Let me repeat: “with the tools, or authority necessary to complete the assignments without needing approval or oversight from the executive.” Period.

The only communication that should be required between the executive and the delegated should fall along the lines of a predetermined time or date for updates, and or a debriefing at completion. Within these parameters you have the basis of true delegation.

What happens in most cases is some form of chain linking a multitude of unsupervised task assignments where the delegated needs to ask permission, and or guidance to proceed.

If a subordinate has to ask for permission or guidance every time a decision is needed, or can’t fix simple issues that might arise – that’s not delegation. Below are a few examples:

  • If you delegate the responsibility of running a department within your organization, the delegated party should not need to ask permission if they can hire, fire, or replace personnel within their department as they see fit. If they do – there is no delegation.
  • If you delegate the task of building a new store display, the person or team assigned should have access to the tools, equipment, and personnel to complete the task without any oversight. If the team has to call to get the keys to unlock the tool shed, permission to use the tools, and so forth daily. There is no delegating going on.
  • If you delegate a subordinate to handle the “customer service” counter, and they need to have a manager sign off on every step including using the restroom. You haven’t delegated anything.

What you’ve really done in the examples listed above is no more than assigned people or departments to completing some form of unsupervised tasks – yet called it “delegating.” This is why so many say to themselves: “I’ve delegated responsibilities yet I feel no relief. Why?” This sometimes not only results in frustration, but in some cases actually increased their workload!

Here’s another way to make this point. You didn’t delegate the task of grocery shopping if:

  • For them to get to the grocery store they need to ask to borrow the keys to your car – call you while driving for directions – call you when they get there – call and ask what brands you want as they’re in the aisles – call to ask if they should use cash or credit, paper or plastic. etc, etc.
    Only to find out when they return you tell them they also should have topped off the tank with gas because they passed by 2 stations even though the tank is almost 3/4’s full.

Sounds crazy, however many do the equivalent of this when they express they’ve “delegated” something to someone.

Actually delegating this task would resemble having an initial discussion stating the person was now responsible for groceries, and to get to the store they had use of your car. Were told what brands were preferred, but which had no substitute. (as in go without – or find another store) Were to use a company card, petty cash, or would be reimbursed. And not to allow the gas gauge to get below 3/4’s of a tank. Then you would have delegated.

Misinterpreting the two, or using them interchangeably can not only frustrate. But can lead to the exact opposite of what one is trying to accomplish – which is working more efficiently.

© 2012 Mark St.Cyr