On the face of it, delegation looks like a straightforward managerial task. But as my experience coaching senior leaders can attest, in practice, it’s more challenging than it seems.
But being a good leader requires you to master the art of delegating. Because if you don’t, you put a ceiling on your impact, invite ongoing overwhelm, and negatively affect productivity, morale, and engagement on your team.
Why leaders find it challenging to delegate
There are numerous reasons why a leader may find it hard to delegate, but the root cause—fundamentally—relates to this fact: delegation is about letting go of control. As a leader (especially those who are used to control), this can feel risky.
For instance, Lynda, a VP at a fintech company, found it harder to contain her micromanaging tendencies after a promotion to a higher-visibility position. The additional exposure exacerbated her perception of the risks of delegating, and she careened toward burnout as she consistently failed to delegate. Another client, Charles, the CEO of a financial services firm, had a significant financial stake in his company and used this to justify his over-involvement in operational details.
Lynda and Charles had different fears surrounding the potential consequences of letting go and delegating more. But the result was the same: they held tightly onto responsibilities and decisions they should’ve delegated.
Both Lynda and Charles understood the mechanics of delegating and knew that they should delegate, but that understanding and knowledge didn’t lead to change. Why? Because they were facing what Harvard professor Ron Heifetz terms an adaptive challenge. Compared to a technical problem, which can be solved simply through preexisting knowledge and competencies, adaptive challenges necessitate that we shift our mindsets to build new leadership capacity. Compared to a simple knowledge or skill deficit, adaptive challenges are ones where there is a gap between our beliefs, our values, and circumstances.
Lynda and Charles were able to finally let go of their over-controlling ways when they viewed their predicament as an effective challenge. You can do it too, by following these three tips.
1. Quantify the costs of not delegating
Most people tend to weigh the risk of doing something, such as delegating, rather than consider the risk of not doing that same thing. To gain a more balanced perspective, and the motivation you’ll need to shift your habits, identify the risks and costs to you of not delegating.
Quantify the dollar value of your time, and determine what it costs you to do the task yourself. Calculate the productivity, engagement, and other emotional impacts on your team due to your lack of trust. If the short-term financial and emotional costs to you and your team are still not compelling enough, consider the costs one or three years from now if you don’t change.
Through this exercise, Charles recognized that what seemed like a time-saving action in the short-term actually came with substantial financial and emotional costs to both himself and his team. That insight convinced him that he needed to change his ways.
2. Identify your fears, and test your assumptions
In their book Immunity to Change, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey offer a robust process that can help with adaptive challenges.
Start by taking a behavioral inventory of the things you are doing—or not doing—that are getting in the way of your delegation goal. Now, imagine doing the exact opposite of those behaviors. What are the worst fears or worries that come up for you? Write them down. We all work to protect ourselves from our fears, but often those fears are based on assumptions and what-ifs.
Next, identify the assumptions that make your self-protective strategies necessary. These assumptions stall you from delegating more unless you can loosen their grip.
To accomplish that, design a low-risk delegation experiment to test if your assumption is true or if it comes from your desire for safety. Lynda made a list of low-risk tasks, projects, and decisions she felt she could safely test and began running her experiments. Through this process, she saw that many of her fears were rooted in faulty assumptions. Over time, she was able to move past her fears and assumptions and delegate more freely. In the end, she saw higher engagement from her team, and in turn, created more balance for herself.
3. Accept that success depends primarily on you
Charles felt he had been burned a few times when he had tried to delegate, and saw this as evidence that he couldn’t trust certain people to take on various responsibilities.
Like many leaders, Charles treated delegation as a simple one-and-done handoff event. But successful delegation depends, in large part, on the leader. They need to foster quality two-way communication and offer targeted coaching. Yes, naturally, this requires a short-term investment of your time, but you’ll end up with better results in the long-term.
When Charles recognized his role is his previous delegation “failures,” he became rigorous about his communication, ensuring explicit agreement at the outset and setting up milestones and checkpoints so there would be built-in opportunities for feedback and alignment. With a formal structure in place for checking in, Charles was able to keep his micromanaging ways at bay.
When they quantified the costs of not delegating, identified and reduced the sources of their resistance, and started to take responsibility rather than assigning blame, Charles and Lynda became effective delegators. All three strategies were based on new ways of thinking that unlocked the behaviors of effective delegation.
If you struggle with letting go, start with changing your mindset. When you address your fears and shift your thinking, you’ll find it far easier to take on new and more effective delegation behaviors. You and your entire team will benefit.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.