Throughout my time working in management and consulting on management skills for other organisations, I would say the skill of Delegation is the most ignored when it comes to formal management training, yet this causes the most stress for many people taking on new management roles. Coaching seems to be the flavour of choice over the last few years; so much so that if I had one dollar every time I heard a client say, ‘part of our strategy is to create a coaching culture’, I probably couldn’t quit my job, but it would be fair to say I could enjoy a fairly extravagant dinner at one of the best restaurants in town. Organisations that are strong at gaining feedback from their people about their own support and development needs tend to focus on Feedback as their management tool of choice. This is the type of management conversation that managers fear the most and ask for development in. Both Coaching and Feedback are essential skills for all successful managers to carry in their toolbox, this I am not arguing. What I would like to put out there in the world media is the art of good, effective Delegation has been sorely forgotten or taken for granted. Many perceive this as an easy skill to master or one that has the least collateral damage if not mastered. When in fact, for new managers (and possibly for the oldmanagers that never really mastered the art of delegation), it can create work and stress for people affecting not only other parts of their job but their overall success in that job.
In all roles there is a degree of task, people and strategy. Most entry level roles or roles that require high technical skill but no management responsibility spend most of their day in the task function. Take an accountant for example; they spend most of their day working on the task of numbers. They may spend minimal time with people through a client or staff meeting and spend minimal time on strategy unless they are working on a strategic project. This may result in the employee not working in line with what has been set and communicated by senior management. Their performance and feeling of adding value is purely on the reports and data they produce; what they know and feel keeps them secure in their job.
So let’s say this accountant is now promoted to management level and has a team of five people to manage. The balance of task, people and strategy naturally changes as there will be more time required to be spent on people; the five direct reports, the manager expecting results and possibly more client contact. What often doesn’t naturally change is the person’s willingness or capability to balance the shift of ‘less task’ and ‘more people’. Many new managers just take on the extra people part and try to create a bigger piece of time to fit in the task they were originally undertaking as a non-manager. No matter how much we would like to change it, there are only 24 hours in a day, so if you are adding more work to your day, you are effectively losing something outside of work to fit it all in, or trying to do everything faster to fit it all in. Both strategies will cause overload, stress and eventual melt down.
So why does this happen? I’ve seen and experienced many reasons for this happening but all of these reasons can be reduced down to one overarching theme: people find it hard to let go of what they know as secure and comforting. Generally people that get promoted to management are exceptional operators known for their quality work and dedication. When they take on the new and exciting responsibility of management, for a period of time (usually up until that eventual melt down occurs), they also try and retain what is secure and comforting to lessen the anxiety of the unknown; being an exceptional operator and undertaking quality work with the focus being on the production of tasks rather than the management of people, process and possibly strategy if it is required.
How it can manifest itself in the workplace
There are several manifestations of this ‘not wanting to let go of what has given me success’, that I have experienced myself or seen in others. That said, it is not to say this list is absolute. Please feel free to send me any others you’ve seen, as I would be interested to hear of your experiences.
The Perfectionist – this is the person that is known for their high quality work. They pride themselves on their branding of this; it’s what has brought them success and makes them feel secure in their work. As such, they expect to create a similar branding for the team they now manage. The end result is the old adage, ‘If you want something done properly the first time, do it yourself’. This can manifest in two ways. The first is that the Perfectionist delegates a task to one of their team members and finds the result to be less than perfect. They end up not trusting the team member to do particular tasks and stops delegating it to them. The second, (which is slightly more extreme), is that the Perfectionist doesn’t even give their team members a chance with anything that could be a stretch ‘knowing’ it will be faster if they just do it themselves rather than go back and forth with the ‘less than perfect’ team member. The Perfectionist spends all of their time undertaking tasks because ‘it’s faster and better if I do it’, which takes up time that could be spent developing their team members. This can lead to burn-out because the manager is doing two jobs instead of one, with the possibility of creating an under developed and demotivated team due to not having opportunities to stretch skill development.
The Controller – this person often finds themselves saying, ‘I hand over responsibility but I always end up involved’. This person feels secure when they know what is happening in any project they are involved with. This is because they know if they have a level of control, they won’t let anything happen that could cause failure. The end result is that slowly over a period of time whatever they delegate to others somehow ends up in their hands again. This result manifests so slowly both the Controller and their team members don’t actually identify it happening until its too late. It goes something like this: the Controller delegates a project to their team, schedules check in meetings to discuss progress of the project and offer support. In these ‘check in’ meetings, the team member reports on their progress and then may have some questions to ensure they are on the right track. They are at a point where they need some guidance for the next stage, or they have undertaken something that the Controller sees as a possible risk to the project. These are all very normal discussion points for a team member/manager discussion. However, the Controller identifies this as ‘the team member doesn’t have control of this therefore I must’ and goes into dictating what course of action needs to happen next. The manager spends hours editing the team member’s work or just ends up doing the work for the team member to get the best result. The team member doesn’t want to disrespect their manager so they go along with the process or they become disengaged and let the Controller take control. The team member then becomes lazy and takes on the habit of going to the Controller for answers rather than support.
The Walk the Talker – This person prides themselves on their action and results. They are not people who value meaningless chit chat. They make things happen and have gained great success through this way of working and brand creation. So when they become a manager they try to gain credibility with their team by demonstrating that they can do anything as they can. ‘You can’t ask your people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself’, is how the Walk the Talker justifies it. This is not a bad principle in theory and can certainly work practically if the following does not occur:
- You spend more time demonstrating your actions/results to your team than focussing on doing your actual job
- Your team take advantage of the fact that you’ll take things on to demonstrate credibility
- Your team see that your actions are more about demonstrating credibility to them than actually helping them and perceive this negatively
- Your manager and senior management sees you not focussing enough on the business needs due to the amount of time spent on menial work
- You give the impression your team isn’t capable of doing the work you are doing for them, which reflects on your management
At the heart of this, moderation is the key. Take on what’s appropriate and what won’t distract you from your actual job. The problem here is when you constantly feel the need to prove yourself to your team, which is more about a lack of confidence in your management ability.
The Team Player – Not dissimilar to the Walk the Talker in that in its dysfunctional form, it relates to a lack of confidence in management ability. This is where a level of importance is placed on being part of the team, even though your job is to manage the team. This comes from being known to be a team player and feeling secure that the team will always be a strong advocate of the value you add to an organisation. If you do not feel like you are part of the team, then you feel like you’re on your own, which makes you vulnerable. What this looks like in the workplace is a manager using terms like, ‘my team is already overloaded so I need to take some of it on myself’. With taking on your team’s workload, you feel a sense of security because, ‘my team can’t do without me’, when in fact the risk is your team will just become used to complaining about how much work they have knowing that you’ll take some of it on. Yes your team will like you, but you will also end up doing more than you should be and possibly neglecting your actual job. This effectively puts you at risk of performance management. You also risk your team seeing you as a team member instead of their manager, which can bring with it a whole bunch of issues that creates more work and time to resolve.
Different solutions work for different people, but at the heart of every new manager being able to move on from the problem and let go of the task, is to identify why they are feeling insecure in their new role and work through this first. That takes a good manager or mentor conversation. Secondary to this is developing the new manager’s skills to be able to delegate effectively; this naturally gives people the confidence and competence to have the effective delegation conversation rather than avoid it. Below are some of the areas you may like to consider yourself as a new manager or discussing with your own team of managers:
- For the Perfectionist, focus your time on perfecting your new role instead of being perfect at your old role. It’s a new set of skills and will take time but the focus is on perfecting your management of others, which means delegating regularly. If you become impatient in this process just remember; it takes time to make time. You are investing time now to save a greater amount of time later.
- For the Controller, just because your team does things differently to you, doesn’t mean it is less effective or will produce a lesser outcome. You can’t dictate how people complete their work, or the process they follow if they can get the right outcome. You also need to consider that you became a champion of the role through learning from challenges and failures so you need to allow others to do the same. Don’t save your people before they have a chance to learn.
- For the Walk the Talker, you are in your management role because you’ve demonstrated the skills required for that role. You don’t need to prove yourself to any of your team, you have the right to be there. If you do feel a challenge from a team member, take on one task to prove your capability but leave it there. It’s more effective to challenge your challenger to prove their worth as behaviour like this usually comes from their own insecurity.
- For the Team Player, you need to spend some time thinking about why it’s so important for you to feel part of the team instead of leading the team. Reflect on how you can feel part of the team without being in the team. Managing a team is being part of a team, it’s just the role you play is different to what you might be used to.
- For all new managers the key to delegation is gaining awareness of the attitude and capability of each of your team members. The tasks you are delegating to each member needs to be something they are capable of, or at the most, a good stretch in their capability. You can only do this through questioning and observing their work.
- Another across the board skill is having the right delegation conversation, which is appropriate to the individual being delegated to and the task being delegated. If the individual is very familiar with the task, a simple request with some deadlines might suffice. If the individual is capable of the task but has never undertaken it before, you may need to be more descriptive in the outcome that is required.
- Delegation is also a great way to develop your team. This is where you can effectively use those coaching and feedback skills everyone has put emphasis on. Delegate tasks that are a good stretch to motivate your team and use your time with them to coach and provide feedback on their development. The important piece here is you need to have an effective delegation conversation BEFORE giving the coaching and feedback.
- Prepare the delegation conversation before having it. Delegation requires the same amount of preparation and care as feedback or coaching; it’s just a different kind of preparation. Spend time preparing the frame of what you are asking; why it is important, how it will benefit the business and the team member and be clear about expectations. People can only produce what they are capable of understanding.
- Ensure that while you support and encourage your people, they understand the task is their responsibility. Ensure that their responsibilities are seen as theirs by their peers and the business. Their success is their own. Your successes are now based on their successes, NOT their tasks.
To be able to do any of the above suggestions well, like any other management skill, requires support, development and learning from experience. So rather than allowing new managers to increase their workload of task, people and strategy and learn the hard way by becoming stressed and over worked. Think about what your organisation can do to help your new managers acquire these skills in a positive way. Let me be clear in saying that sending your new managers to a delegation program will not fix this alone. It will absolutely help develop the knowledge to better manage the transition, but to truly pass through to the other side new managers need constant guidance through strong support and projects to ensure they are proactively practicing this skill. If this isn’t provided there is a high risk that your new managers will make the rookie mistake of taking what can seem to be the easier route of ‘It’s easier to do it myself’ or ‘I don’t have time to take them through every detail of what needs to be done’ or ‘If only people could just do things like I do them’. If this happens, it will only end in tears, stress, late intervention or worse a resignation.
- Q&A: Tanya Edlington
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