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Delegation vs Abdication

| James Riley |

As we added team members, many other business leaders and friends counseled me that I needed to make sure that I didn’t hamstring them. I was counseled to be sure that I actually delegated well and empowered my team members to run with things and, also, fail. Because I don’t tend to do things halfway, I set out to make sure I properly and fully delegated. While failing to delegate is damaging to a team, I found something that is similarly, if not more, damaging…abdication.

When I delegated tasks to team members, I was so zealous to make sure that I delegated and got out of their way, I ended up just dropping things on their plates, without proper direction or even definition and I left them to it. The problem was that, in my haste to make sure I didn’t get in their way, I left them accountable to perform a task for which they were not properly trained nor did they have an appropriate understanding of what needed to be accomplished. I didn’t abdicate the tasks out of a desire to just get away from them but my actions were, effectively, abdication.

As with most things in life, the devil is in the details. There is an interesting balancing act of handing over the reins to something. The obvious issue is not letting go soon enough but, as I discovered, the other side of that issue is equally problematic in that you need to make sure you perform the handoff well.

For us, we have come to use the image of a relay runner. The handoff of the baton between two runners clearly shows this balance as, if you let go too soon, you will drop the baton. If you fail to let go soon enough, at best, you will hamper the next runner’s ability to take the baton while in full stride.

We are FAR from having this one all figured out. I believe that this process, like many others, is more of a journey than a destination. While effective delegation requires a good number of things and many books have been written about this, we have found that there are 3 core things.

The first is humility…for both parties. When we set our egos aside and focus on the task at hand, the concern is about how to achieve the goal the best way possible. As the delegator, it is critical to make sure that we are not tainting the process with a desire to hold onto the task for our own ego. This allows us to make clearer, merit-based, judgments about when to hold on and when to let go. For the delegate, submitting to the process and being humble enough to admit uncertainty opens the doors for good communication and training. The added benefit of managing egos is that, often, the process can run faster. When the parties are able to honestly communicate, they are able to more quickly identify tension points in the handoff and quickly address them rather than leaving them hidden until they emerge in the shadows, when nobody notices them until it is, sometimes, too late.

Once we have humility in place, the second is communication. The early mistake I made was to assume that stating something once was enough. We find that successful communication involves communicating about something, dialoguing about it and remaining available to continue to work out the finer details. This is not to be confused with the delegator not being willing to leave the delegate alone to do their work, it is more a matter of remaining available to provide counsel. Often, I find that the best way to counsel someone is to ask questions which help the person walk through what they are thinking, the downstream effects and how their thoughts align with their goal. Often, this is enough to help the person find their way and it helps them see that they usually have the knowledge needed to figure something out if they just slow down and think through it a bit.

The third element we find to be critical is teamwork. Often, when delegating a task to someone, they lack the bigger picture awareness that the delegator has. While the delegate can always go back to the delegator for counsel, another powerful tool we have found is to have them go to other team members who might not have a complete picture but do have other parts of the picture. This definitely requires team members to have the humility to admit what they don’t know. We have found that, when this is done, often, the team doesn’t come up with a solution that equals what the original delegator would have done…it surpasses it.

While an obvious reason for delegation is to expand work capacity beyond a single person, we also see it as an amazing tool to mentor and train up new team members. We so believe in this that it is a critical element to what we do as a business and you will often find our senior staff working alongside junior staff, in various stages of training, in order to be able to delegate various tasks in the future.