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How to manage if you suck at delegating (and why it’s an important skill to learn)

Susan Vroman and Tiffany Danko observe that when done right, delegating authority can be the perfect opportunity to showcase that the talent on your team is ready for new roles and responsibilities.

How to manage if you suck at delegating (and why it’s an important skill to learn)
[Photo: Andrii Yalanskyi/Getty Images]

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When I was a young manager, my senior vice president went to Australia for two weeks.  Officially, she told me I was “in charge.”  Within days, however, there were emails checking in, requests for status reports, and edits on documents stored in the shared drive.  Within a few electronic read receipts, I went from being empowered to feeling micromanaged, more so than when she was even in the office. My leader didn’t really leave and the implied lack of trust and confidence was more demoralizing than if I had failed while she was away.

While recent conversations have shifted from remote work management to the trust between managers and employees, as we continue to return from pandemic era policies, business travel is on the rise, along with personal vacation leave. Now is the time for managers to prepare to be out of the office, readying the mindset that their workers will continue to thrive even if they are not available to answer questions or make immediate decisions.

This summer, when I was preparing to take my own time off, I told my team they were fully empowered while I was away. I shared with my colleagues that I’d be taking work email off of my cellular plan. I told them it was up to my team to find solutions to problems, and I hoped they’d innovate if there were any scenarios they didn’t have set answers for. Their reception was usually positive, but then . . . they’d share their own positions.

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What I heard ranged from “I could never do that, they need me” to “I’d love to do that, then they’d fail and see how much they need me.” No one, it seemed, was prepared to step away and allow their teams to discover how to work on their own. Clearly, two themes were at play. First, definitions of “need” seem to be subjective. And second, perhaps more importantly, I realized I’m working with managers who don’t fully grasp the concept of leadership. No one was ready to fully delegate authority; they felt they needed to manage all aspects of how work gets done.

There are clear differences between management and leadership. Whereas managers establish protocol to control efforts toward accomplishing goals, leaders seek to influence their followers via empowerment and motivation. When you leave the office for any length of time, some work will continue. Managers will delegate tasks to accomplish, while leaders grant the authority to make decisions. Therefore, what happens when you are away or otherwise occupied determines if you managed them to mitigate risk or led them to succeed.

While travel should be an opportunity to focus on the people and places you are with, we would suggest that before you go, you should invest your time evaluating your own capacity to lead versus manage. To do this, take inventory of how you’re leading versus managing your people. Determine if you are or can be ready to really delegate your work while you are away. How you enable your team to own their own work today is a strong indicator if you are leading or managing.

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Leaders (really) empower others to lead

In today’s workplace, a collaborative managerial style has become common. This style may appear to be flexible and amenable; however, as scholar Abraham Zaleznik put it, there is an inevitable use of negotiation and bargaining with rewards and punishment that limits real choices and ensures the manager’s way is carried through.  

Day to day, managers are tasked with leading their teams to do their work. They treat work as an enabling process and combine people and ideas to establish strategies to accomplish their goals. When problems arise, managers will figure out the best solution. Leaders, on the other hand, do not resolve conflicts; they facilitate a process to manage them.  

Leaders share the issues of concern and encourage followers to generate their own ideas. Their teams are empowered to develop the ideas that are most viable, as determined by shared parameters for evaluation. In other words, leaders set goals and fully enable their teams to find solutions. 

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When you are evaluating your leadership, consider how you’ve handled conflict or delegated issue management in the past. If you have led your team, you will feel comfortable fully empowering an emerging leader or the team at large to not only execute the work, but to take control of the process in your stead. If you have managed, you may be more risk averse. There will be more authority guidelines and institutionalized decision-making check-ins.

Both of these avenues, or a combination therein, can work. The challenge is to know yourself before you go to a conference or fly to a client meeting, so that the guidance and expectations that you set in place are aligned. Are you saying that you will empower someone, then limiting their abilities either yourself or with protocol? Or setting a clear guideline of how you will interact with the team (or not) and what latitude they have to accomplish goals and objectives during that time? The answers to these questions are strong indicators of how you’re leading, or managing your team.

Leaders don’t feel compelled to check in after delegating work

If you are in your office, (physical or remote), how often do you check in with your team? Most likely, you let them do what they need to and talk when they hit a crossroad. Each time you do step in, you are hopefully teaching the team what to look for in determining the appropriate next steps, not solving problems for them. So, when you prepare to travel for business (or pleasure), why not leverage what they’ve learned?    

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When professor Aaron Nurick analyzed data from 1,000 business professionals on what type of leadership worked best for them, they said they preferred to be given the freedom to fail and learn from their own mistakes. Their leaders granted them the opportunity and flexibility to take risks and learn from their actions in a safe environment. As a result, the workers felt they were able to calculate the risks of their own actions. 

Delegation is a critical skill for leaders, an opportunity to evaluate what truly needs your personal decision, and where your team may be able to take on new responsibilities and shine. What better opportunity to grant a trial period of freedom than when you are going away? When you leave the office, the window of freedom is clear: there will be a return. Unless a mistake is made that you need to know about, a set vacation is a calculated risk in empowerment and an excellent exercise in your own leadership assessment. If there are any doubts, set time for meetings or reports that will be due in advance. In short, take the trip: It may be just the opportunity to recognize and empower an emerging leader in your organization needed.

Being missed is the opposite of the goal

When some leaders go away, they say they are secretly wanting the team, their colleagues, or their boss to flail without them. Not only is that an unhealthy sign about a leader’s relationship with their job and coworkers, but it is also an immature leadership stance. To that, we also share an analogy of a dam. If work is a process that controls how water flows, the manager’s work is reacting to when the dam springs some leaks each day. We remind you that your job isn’t to put your fingers in all the dams. 

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A key difference between managers and leaders is how they relate to people. Managers respond to people according to the role they play in decision making processes or other sequences of events. They are concerned with how things get done. On the other hand, leaders relate in more empathetic and intuitive ways including what decisions and events mean to their followers.  

Instead of worrying (or thinking) that time away from the office will be when the veritable dam springs its leaks, take the time beforehand to groom how your team works with delegated authority. Develop your team’s talent, enabling them to grow into your role.  Help them understand how their work fits into the bigger picture, upskill them so that they will have capabilities beyond completion of their assigned tasks, and they will have the comfort to interact with new people and accept new challenges. 

When done right, delegating authority can be the perfect opportunity to showcase that the talent on your team is ready for new roles and responsibilities. As an added benefit, it highlights the role you’ve played in developing them. So as travel for business resumes (or you get ready for vacation), think about how you’ve been leading versus managing. If you or your team are not ready yet, begin to delegate the work and empower them more so you and they can get comfortable. Your lost luggage, however, will still be a problem.

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Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and Rear Admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.


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