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Delegation – Up-Leveling Your Game (1of2)

January 30, 2015

This is part one of a two part series on delegation. Let’s start with imagining that you had retained me as a consultant, and as we worked together, and the topic of delegation came up. What if I asked you how you were at delegating, and if you were to improve your skills at delegating (you know such that people followed through and completed what you delegated), would you know what to do next? What would you say?

Most executives say fuzzy things like:

  • “I think I’m OK” (which means I don’t know and haven’t thought about it much), and/or
  • “I’m not sure exactly what I would do to improve.” Which can mean anything from “I don’t know what I would do to improve,” to “I’m not going to stick my neck out and say anything.

Is that close to what you were just thinking?  In fact the way we practice delegation leaves a lot on the table. Most of the time it’s a set-up for less than ideal results, but we’re pretty good at ignoring our own personal efficacy in this area, so we don’t feel much of the pain in delegation “drops” until it gets frustrating.  And it can get quite frustrating.  Yes?  You’re nodding your head.  

In general it gets frustrating because the way we delegate has too much of a “black box” process to it. By that I mean that most of us don’t have a great idea of what happens exactly to half the stuff we delegate. And the stuff we do know about, sometimes seems to need multiple follow-ups to get it right. And the reason why?… well we don’t know for sure and that’s what makes it such a black box.

In fact, the black box or gap in how most of us delegate at work seems to get bigger the more importance increases. And when it gets to critical stuff, well, delegation is badly in need of rein-invention. And this is true even if you are a ManagePro user (e.g. the tool doesn’t magically up-level our delegation skills). So in this two series blog, I’m going to suggest two reversals in how you think about and approach delegating, to fix what’s missing in delegation… and up-level your skills and results.

As we get going, you can take a big sigh of relief. I’m not going to focus on you that much. There’s plenty of research and tips on how to package delegations and when you should and shouldn’t delegate. Mindtools has a typical list of best practices in case you would like to review. The tips, ranging from clarifying your expectations to defining your role, are good ones, just not enough to remove the black box.  But, and here comes the suggestion we’re going to work on in this blog, what if you put a pause on focusing on how you package what you delegate, and instead pull back the curtain and look at the psychology of the person receiving the delegation. Why? Because that’s the way to improve your delegation skills and get the whole process out of the black box

#1  So the first reversal is to realize it’s about them not you.  So let’s get better at understanding the psychology of delegation from the delegatee’s point of view. What I think you’ll find, is that there are two penetrating questions around which our internal neurons are firing when someone delegates to us. An internal process that the person delegating to us would be way ahead in the game, if they were aware of and addressed. I know this is focusing more on them, and less on you, but bear with me, I think you’ll see the value… and simplicity of it all.

Think about when someone delegates something important to you. What goes on in your head? You may be saying out loud, “got it” or “no problem” or something else, but what’s the conversation going on in your head? You’re actually responding to a number of questions that start with “What?” and “Why?”



Let’s go through a quick example:

Imagine your CEO delegates to you the objective to grow the North America market by 25% this year. Your brain immediately fires into a succession of “What” questions and internal responses if your CEO doesn’t address them. Starting on the “What” side, you might be thinking, “What? Does that mean with our current budget… do I get more staff, more competitive products to sell… does it have to be profitable growth?”  Or you might be thinking, “What does that mean in terms of current priorities… What will my compensation be?” etc.? By-the-way, your brain, given a night to digest it, may eventually ask and respond to more than 50 “What” based questions… and all without having any interaction with your CEO. Sounds like a black box doesn’t it, and a big gap evolving between what the CEO expected when delegating and what he or she may actually get back. Does this make sense?

Well, at the same time, your brain is also firing off a bunch of “Why?” questions. They could range from, “Why is that my responsibility, I though you said we were going to grow by acquisitions you were targeting this year?” to “Why should I take you seriously, maybe you’re just having a bad day after looking at last quarter’s results, and I should wait to see if you’re really serious?” Or maybe you’re wondering, “So does that mean you just want me to add that to the next management power point?” Again, most of the times these questions don’t get verbalized or worked through, with a resulting gap between expectations and results.  That gap needs to get fixed, to get bridged, if you’re going to improve your outcomes when delegating.

In fact, it seems like the more complex, the more critical, the task being delgated, the more questions get raised in the person’s mind that’s receiving the delegation. Questions which you would be well served by weighing in on if you were doing the delegating, don’t you think?

But that’s not how we delegate most of the time is it? We tend to speak the word, but not work through all the questions, much less follow-up to see if there were questions after the person had a chance to think about what we requested. We delegate in ways that entirely miss the psychology of the person receiving the request.  We ignore the conversation going on in their brain and leave it up to them to fill in the answers.  Take a guess at what % of the time they come up with the same answers as you.  Well you and I would like it to be 100%, but as Gershwin wrote years ago, “It Ain’t Necessarily So

In fact there’s two specific steps we can take to improve our results, two steps to change about how we delegate that will have an enormous improvement in successful follow-through rate. The first step, as introduced in this blog has to do with entering the conversation in the head of the person you are delegating to.  But I’ll spell out this and the second step in detail in part two of this blog.  See you there.

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