Are you delegating effectively?

Scott Schaefer, co-author of The Roadside MBA, said: “When you are in charge, anything that is not specifically somebody else’s job lands on you, and it is easy to get bogged down.”

Delegation is said to be the cure for “overwhelmingness”.

Most people find it quite difficult to delegate tasks and will make excuses as to why they are not doing it. The most common one is that it is easier and quicker to just do the tasks yourself.

Melinda Fouts, an international executive coach, says people also fall into a habit of doing menial tasks that take up their time yet do not require them to apply themselves. 
“This puts you in the realm of cognitive ease, also known as ‘busy work’.

This is a common diversion from work that requires your cognitive strain and can verge on the heels of procrastination,” she writes in Forbes magazine.

Ask the right questions

Fouts says delegation and development go hand in hand. “When you delegate, you are entrusting work to another person, usually one less senior than yourself. Delegating requires trust and faith in the other person.”

Managers have to ask themselves a few questions when delegating:

 - Do you know and can you rely on the skills and abilities of those you delegate to?
 - Are the performance standards and expectations clear and obvious?
 - Are there rules and guidelines to be followed to entrust someone with a task or responsibility?
 - Is there too much authority given (or not enough) for the task to be sufficiently completed?

The authors of The Roadside MBA − Schaefer, Paul Oyer and Michael Mazzeo – say delegating effectively requires deep thinking about whether subordinates will make good decisions.

“This means delegation and incentives issues are often very tightly linked. It is a hard problem that requires a careful and constant balancing act.”

A few years ago the three professors embarked on a road trip through the US, visiting small businesses and entrepreneurs, with the aim of finding some “smart tactics” to assist business owners.

“When delegating, it is never enough to think just about who has information that is useful for making good decisions, it is essential to think about the decision maker’s incentives to make a good decision.”

The owner of a concrete block manufacturer with a large geographical footprint delegated certain decisions to his plant managers to take advantage of their local knowledge.

In this case the owner linked plant profits to the pay of his managers, which generated incentives for the managers to use their local knowledge to make good decisions.

Pitfalls of linking profits and performance  

During the authors’ visit to a theme park in Idaho, the owner told them about his strategy to create a theme park where “quality exceeds expectations”.

He had the habit of visiting other theme parks and noticed that while people were queuing all day in his ice cream store, a competitor’s store was virtually empty. The reason for this was that employees at his store tended to “overscoop”.

Then, a new general manager started cutting costs and saved the owner $600 000 in a year. Unfortunately, customers stopped buying ice cream in his park, and it took four years before they returned in numbers.

“The story illustrates a common problem with profit as a measure of performance.” Owners care about long-run value, but employees typically have shorter time horizons.

“This means that tying employee pay to accounting profits can encourage them to think too much about the short-run effects of their decisions.”

Ideally, subordinates would use the information at their disposal to make exactly the decision the owner would have made. 

The authors also use the example of a company specialising in IT outsourcing for small businesses to illustrate the importance of understanding coordination.

The owner wanted a salesperson who could put in more effort when the company had excess capacity but a low sales effort when his technicians were swamped.

With coordination, the performance of one part of the business influenced the actions of another part – the owner wanted a salesperson who would adjust his efforts in accordance with the demands on the tech side of the business. 

According to the professors the standard recipe for delegation – to cut the organisation into pieces, measure the contribution of each piece to profits, and delegate decision-making – can fail when the divisions need to coordinate their actions.

What kind of delegator are you?

According to HR generalist Natalie Fisher there are two types of delegators. The one type will allow you to complete the assigned task in any way you wish “as long as you get there on time and within budget”. 

This is the kind of manager people like, she writes on the website Digital Vault.

Then there are those managers who will walk you through the entire process step by step, focusing on each detail.

They believe that their way of doing things is the best way and that they are helping you by teaching you this method. Generally, employees don’t like this type of manager.

Businessballs, a free ethical learning and development resource, says a simple way to delegate effectively is to keep in mind the SMARTER acronym, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound, Ethical, Recorded.

Delegation is not just a management technique for freeing up the boss’s time. 

“As a giver of delegated tasks you must ensure delegation happens properly. Just as significantly, as the recipient of delegated tasks you have the opportunity to manage upwards and suggest improvements to the delegation process − especially if your boss could use the help,” states Businessballs.

Fisher says it is important to recognise when a manager delegated a job effectively. One way to judge whether the manager did this well is to see if employees want to do more work for them.

This article originally appeared in the 21 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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