When Delegation Fails

Why doesn’t delegation work for me? Brace yourself – It may be about you!

Being able to effectively delegate is an essential task of a leader, and effective delegation can help you succeed in many ways. You have a “team” for a reason- because you can’t do everything alone and be effective in your role as a leader, because most complex organizations need a wide variety of skill sets, because there simply isn’t enough time to get everything done on your own etc.  Regardless of what kind of business or organization you are leading, you need the support and capable hands of those around you to accomplish all that you are trying to do. Delegation is also critically important for the growth and empowerment of those you lead; you have smart, skilled people on your team, right? You have selected/hired your team for a reason; ensuring that they are working at their top level will keep them engaged and enthusiastic which will grow the overall performance of your team. Talented people do NOT like to be underutilized.  So why might your efforts to delegate be unsuccessful?  Brace yourself, it may be about you! (I know – ouch! But please read on…)

It is not uncommon for leaders of teams to complain about or struggle with the idea that tasks or projects they delegate end up “boomeranging” back to them. I have heard comments from leaders such as “I don’t understand what is happening because I know my people have the skills to complete the tasks and to handle the projects.” If you know you have a skilled, strong team, then there are a few key questions to reflect on to see if you are hindering your own efforts to delegate.Before assuming your team is deficient, take a look at your own role.  Watch yourself during a few instances of trying to delegate and honestly consider the answers to the following questions. Pay attention to your behaviors, the messages you send to the team (both verbal and implied), and notice your own emotional responses – sometimes failing to delegate effectively is about our own fears or perfectionist desires to see everything working “correctly.”

Am I too vague or ambiguous about what I want accomplished? 

Sometimes the reason tasks don’t get accomplished as expected, or on the timeline expected is because we haven’t been specific enough about what we need and when we need it.  Rather than a generalized set of directions such as “Review the Jones case and let me know next steps.” You may need to be more specific so that people can accomplish the task at hand in the timeframe you need. For example, “Please review the Jones case and let me know by Thursday at noon what the total costs will be and if we need to schedule another meeting with them.”  (Notice I added a “please” – even though you are the boss, respect and courtesy are essential.)

Am I too specific and not allowing my team member the autonomy to use their expertise? 

This is the opposite of the first – perhaps you are being so specific and so demanding about exactly how you expect something to be done, that your colleague gets the implied message that you don’t trust her capacity to handle it.  Is this a task that can be accomplished in a number of ways with equally effective result? Is the exact, specific way that you would do it the only way to do it? (Really think about this one – we all think “our way” is best, however cultivating comfort with others’ approach can do wonders for team cohesion.)

Are my priorities clear?

If you are delegating multiple tasks to a person or to a team, is it clear which issues are priority and should be completed first? Are any of the items time-sensitive and does the team know that? You do not have to specifically list the order of tasks for the team per se, however make sure you are clear if there are priorities or urgent issues that should be completed first.

Do I regularly change the end decision or action?

If you ask a colleague to make a decision or take an action and you consistently change it or criticize it once it is presented to you, then you will leave your team member with thoughts such as “Then why didn’t you just do it yourself in the first place?”  You run the risk of eroding the sense of trust and when people do not feel trusted, it can lead to disengagement and resentment. (Obviously not good for team cohesion and performance.) Of course, depending on your work, some decisions may need to be changed for safety or legal issues – in that case clearly discuss with your colleague what the safety or legal issues are and why you, therefore, are making the change to their plan. This will allow them to gain new knowledge and be more prepared for the next delegated task. However, if it is a matter of “style” you may be better served to sit in your own discomfort and let it move forward with thanks to your colleague. Here you can pay attention to your emotional discomfort and remind yourself there are often many paths to the same outcome and that the benefit to team dynamics is more important.

Lastly, for some tasks, ask yourself do I need to “delegate” at all?

Do you find yourself often describing to your team tasks that need to be done that they already know need to be done?  Do you reiterate basics and “harp” on details which are a routine part of their work and that they handle regularly? If so, stop.  They have this aspect of the work mastered; needless reminders are annoying and can create an experience of micro-management and distrust that you do not want creeping into your team.

There are indeed times when the “failures” of delegation fall to the team members, however taking an honest look at your own behaviors and emotional responses to task/project delegation may provide some insight about changes that you, as the leader, can make. Reflection and adaptation will increase your effectiveness, model self-awareness and support the engagement and positive morale of your team. Look inside first, focus on building trust and using the capacity of your team, take a deep breath before judging and keep practicing. You and your team will be better for it!

Kristen Fragnoli February 2018


2 thoughts on “When Delegation Fails

  1. Thank you Kristen. I am reflecting on my leadership skills and I sometimes struggle with delegating effectively. In the future I will consider these tips.

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