Many years ago, when I first began supervising junior employees’ work (I wasn’t even a manager yet, but I was more senior than these employees), I received feedback on my delegation style. The people I supervised complained both that I provided too little direction and also that I micromanaged them.
I wondered how I could commit both errors, but a little deeper review of their comments revealed the problem. Basically, they said I either delegated a project to them and walked away without giving any instruction, or I took their drafts and totally rewrote them.
I had to agree that I both of these descriptions fit what I was doing. While some of the people I supervised were competent, even they could use a little direction. And although some of the output needed editing, I was probably overdoing it.
Over time, I realized how important it is to match one’s management style to the employee being managed. New employees need a lot of direction, but experienced employees should be allowed a lot of leeway in how they do their jobs. Weak employees need constant oversight, strong employees need only to be supported.
A couple of recent articles have made that point to managers.
“When delegating goes wrong, it’s often because of you.”
Another article directed at attorney managers said if you’re disappointed in the work your employees do
“it may be that you need to improve your delegating skills.”
Both of these articles make similar points in how to delegate. Here are some pointers on delegation, gleaned from the articles and from my own experience:
1. Set clear expectations and describe the expected outcome
Give your employee some background information so they know why the work is important and give specific deliverables.
“I need a 3-5 page memo describing how we might implement this new compensation program” is much better delegation than “tell me what you think so I can talk to the V-P.” Or “use the structure of the brief I wrote in the last case as a model, but tailor it to the facts of this case,” rather than “just give me something I can use as a first draft.”
Even experienced employees can benefit from knowing the context of the assignment. The more experienced the employee, the more you should focus your direction on showing how the project aligns with organizational objectives, and the less you should give detailed parameters for the deliverable.
2. Set realistic deadlines
If you’ve known a 20-hour project was due for a month, it isn’t fair to the employee to delegate it the Thursday before the Monday it’s due. You’re asking to be an unpopular boss.
On the other hand, part of setting clear expectations is to tell the employee how long the project should take. If it should only take four hours, and you know the employee’s workload, or you can help reprioritize other projects, then maybe giving just a few days for the project is reasonable.
Still, the more control you can give employees over their workload, the better they will accept additional work and will strive to provide good results.
3. Be available, but don’t stand over their shoulder
Make sure employees have the resources they need to handle the project well. That includes not only time, but also access to you and to others in the organization (or clients) that have relevant information that could improve the result.
But don’t ask for daily—or hourly, as one manager I had did on occasion—updates. A couple of check-in points is probably all that is required. One of my early failings was not checking in with employees at all, which was just as bad as checking in too often.
4. Build in review time
Even though you shouldn’t look over employees’ shoulders, you need to reserve time to “inspect what you expect.” That Monday due date I mentioned above shouldn’t mean that the employee brings you their deliverable 15 minutes before you head to the CEO’s office. You’ll want time to put your stamp on the end result, even if the work was done by your strongest employee.
But when you review your employees’ work, only make necessary changes. This is something I still have trouble with today. I tend to want to rewrite any report I receive before passing it on.
Throughout my career, I struggled with the balance between putting my stamp on the work and over-editing minor points. When I over-edited, my staff became demoralized. It also tended to make them sloppier—knowing that I would rewrite what they turned in, they didn’t always submit their best work. It became a vicious circle, because I would rewrite more if I thought they hadn’t been precise.
5. Recognize the work done
It’s easy to take the result and move on. But if the end product is strong, let the employee know. If it needed improvement, let the employee know that as well.
Show the employee any changes you made to their work and offer to discuss why you made the changes. Perhaps their work was substantively fine, but might have struck upper management the wrong way. Even good employees can learn from how your style differs from theirs.
If you have micro-managed the project or rewritten more than was necessary, let the employee know that is your failing and not theirs.
What experience have you had with delegation, as both manager and subordinate? What worked? What didn’t?