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ATD Blog

Three Reasons Delegation Fails – Dissecting Delegation for Better Results

Wednesday, September 13, 2023
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Delegation is tricky and full of potential pitfalls. When we do it well, we help others develop and grow. When we don’t do it effectively, we create sabotage. When we don’t do it at all, we limit our growth and others. What is it that makes delegation so challenging to embrace, and why do those who do it so often fail to reach their goals? Let’s start with looking at what we really mean when we talk about delegation.

At Personify Leadership, we define delegation as: Sharing authority and responsibility with a delegate.
We define delegate as: One who is authorized to act for, or represent, others.

With those definitions in mind, let’s look at the three main reasons delegation fails.

Reason #1: We Don’t Want to Be Vulnerable

When you read these definitions, what is the first response or reaction you have? For most, it’s resistance. Most of us don’t like the idea of sharing authority and responsibility and having others represent us. Yikes! That feels risky. And the truth is, it is. There is some vulnerability in this process, but without it, we end up in the delegation doom loop where we don’t delegate because our delegate isn’t skilled, and because we don’t delegate, the team member remains unskilled. As a result, we continue to do the work ourselves because who wants an unskilled person representing us? So unfortunately, the delegate remains unskilled. It’s a vicious cycle that ends only when we are vulnerable enough to take responsibility for our role in the problem.

Reasons #2: We Don’t Know How to Properly Delegate

We have identified three primary modes of delegation. The first is Hands-On, the next is Hand-in-Hand, and the last is Hands-Off. If leaders communicated upfront their intent and reasons for delegating, it would save a lot of time and effort in the long run.
Modes of Delegation: Hands On, Hand in Hand, Hands Off.jpg
Hands-On: The Hands-On mode of delegation is where most authority and responsibility reside with the leader, and only a limited amount of authority and responsibility reside with the delegate. Hands-On delegation is an opportunity to develop and shape another person’s knowledge, skill, and ability so that they can handle more authority and responsibility down the road. In order to do this, the leader needs to stay in close contact with the project and with the delegate, provide ongoing coaching, mentoring, shadowing, and feedback while allowing the delegate to take on parts of the project that make the most sense for their skill while working closely with the leader in areas they are not skilled.

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Hand-In-Hand: In the Hand-in-Hand mode of delegation, there is equal or close to equal authority and responsibility shared between leader and delegate. Hand-in-Hand is an opportunity for both leaders and delegates to learn. By working side by side with their delegate and allowing them some flexibility to express their talents, leaders can learn more about their delegate’s potential. In contrast, delegates have the opportunity to continue learning from their leader in a more participative way. Together, the leader and delegate define who does what on the project and outline clear expectations of a successful outcome. Ultimately, the leader is still responsible for the outcome, but the delegate bears an equal amount of accountability to contribute to overall success.

Hands-Off: In the Hands-Off mode of delegation, the authority and responsibility mainly reside with the delegate, not the leader. Likely, the delegate has demonstrated high competence and relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities to do the job well without much oversight from the leader. The delegate understands the expectations and can be trusted to drive the project to successful completion with minimal involvement of the leader. Although the delegate is capable, it is always smart to establish clear expectations during the delegation conversation along with clear touch points throughout the project to support and guide the delegate.

As leaders, some of the things we consider when determining what level of support the delegate will need from us is 1) their skill, 2) the visibility of the project, 3) the skill required for the project, and 4) the appropriateness of their role to our project.

If we have selected a Hands-On process, we will continue to be responsible for and have authority over the majority of the outputs of the project. If we don’t communicate this effectively, the delegate may believe this is a Hands-Off process. In the Hands-Off process, the delegate has the majority of the responsibility and authority of the project outputs. If both the leader and delegate are working with different definitions about what the process will look like, clarity about who does what could be a problem. Not to mention trust is at risk, and poor results are likely to follow.

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Reason #3: We Don’t Provide Our Delegates With Voice and Choice
Even when we do our best to give our team members instruction, direction, clear expectations, and appropriate support, delegation can fail. Especially if we don’t give our delegate voice and choice. Let’s take a closer look at some of the types of delegation situations that come up in the workplace where the leader does not provide voice or choice.

  • The leader provides the delegate with a project, and the delegate asks for a larger budget and longer timeframe for completion. The leader responds with “Do what you can with what you have.”
  • The leader provides a task to the delegate, but when the delegate asks the leader to consider a different approach, the leader shrugs off the suggestion and says, “Just please do what I’ve asked. This way is tried and true.”
  • The leader provides the delegate a task that requires input from others to complete effectively, but the leader asks the delegate not to communicate with anyone what they are working on and not to seek any additional input or assistance. When the delegate articulates their concerns, the leader goes silent for a couple of days and then minimizes the delegate’s role on the project, giving them a menial task to complete.

In these examples, the direction was clear, but the delegate did not have a voice or choice about the delegation. They were likely not fully motivated or committed to the project. And when delegates are forced to work without voice and choice, they will likely sabotage the project, leader, or organization.

So, what’s the solution? At this point, we know delegation requires some effort on our part. This isn’t easy, and maybe just knowing that is half the battle to get started and do it well. Here are three simple strategies that may help you overcome the three reasons delegation fails:

1. To start the delegation process, begin by making two lists. The first is a list of all the things you do on a daily basis. The second list is all the things you would do if you could just get to them. Go back to your first list and identify the right people to support you in moving things on this list off your plate. Just do it! Don’t let yourself get stuck with making excuses because there are many!

2. When you delegate, provide as much clarity as possible in the delegation conversation. Define the mode of delegation you are working from and be clear about what touchpoints are along the way as well as expected outcomes.

3. Give your delegate voice and choice in selecting the delegation task and along the way. Make sure they understand the value of your request and let them share their concerns, ask questions, and ultimately decide if they feel they are the right fit for your request.

About the Author

Michelle Cummings is the co-founder, CEO, and chief creative officer for Personify Leadership, a leadership development company. She is an accomplished author and is a dynamic, sought-after speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership, teambuilding, and experiential learning. Michelle has created a wide variety of facilitation tools, team building exercises and leadership programs that have collectively changed the way trainers and leaders work.

2 Comments
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Very insightful, delegation has been broken down into easily digestible pieces
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Great article Michelle. Thanks for sharing your insights! :)
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