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ATD Blog

Being a Can-Do Leader

By and

Tue Apr 16 2013

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Bending the Iron Law of Managerial Delegation

How many times have managers heard some version of the following?

  • Every time you do work you could have delegated, you’re nothing more than the highest paid member of your team!

  • If you are not delegating, you are not managing.

  • Don't fall into the trap of continuing to do the particular things you really loved doing before you became a manager.

  • If you can’t let go, you are over controlling and not developing your people.

  • If you continue to get caught up in the details of doing work you could have delegated, you’ll be “thinking too small to think big.” 

On the other hand, when it comes to the actual practice of being a manager, how many times have managers considered some version of the following?

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  • The job must get done ASAP and I am the one person who has the expertise to get it done on time.

  • I don’t trust (or believe) that my people can get the job done on time with the right level of quality.

  • I’m concerned that I am losing my technical relevance because the professional knowledge and skills that I developed prior to becoming a manager are now atrophying.

  • Isn’t there some way that as a manager I can delegate most tasks, but still be selectively involved in other tasks that I might have delegated?

Based on our research, we have found that the answer to the last question is, most definitely, “Yes, you can!” You can both delegate and do as a successful manager. In fact, selectively doing work you might otherwise have delegated enables you to keep up with some of the important technical aspects of your chosen field. Selectively doing can also provide you with opportunities to become a better manager. 

We call the misguided belief that if you are not delegating you are not managing, "The Myth of The Iron Law of Managerial Delegation.  Disobeying this hallowed precept of management orthodoxy from time to time does not mean abdicating your managerial responsibility. Even managers who are very skilled at delegating will find themselves in situations where the Iron Law of Managerial Delegation needs to be bent

Effective managers understand that focusing on delegating tasks rather than doing these tasks themselves is necessary if they are going to both get things done and develop their staff along the way.

That said, there are times when getting things done properly and/or developing your staff can be better achieved by doing parts of certain tasks yourself rather than fully delegating them.  The key is to know when to do and when to delegate.

To Do or Not to Do?

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If you find yourself wondering if you should participate in the doing of a particular task that you might have delegated, here are some thoughts that might help you decide whether or not to participate:

Inappropriate Reasons for Doing Rather than Delegating.

Some of the “classic” reasons why managers quite inappropriately fail to delegate a task include:

  • Can’t let go because you like the feeling of being in control If you don’t let your staff do the vast majority of their appropriate tasks because you fear losing control, you’ll end up losing control of your ability to function as an effective manager. 

  • Lack of confidence in your own skill as a delegator The less you delegate, the less confidence you’ll have in your ability to delegate. 

  • Impatience Your team members are unlikely to get better and faster at doing the tasks you want them to do if you don’t give them frequent opportunities to do these tasks.

  • Concern that others won’t do it YOUR way The belief that only you can do a wide range of tasks the “right” way inhibits initiative and new thinking. It can also dampen your staff’s sense of personal responsibility for team success.

Expedient Reasons for Doing Rather than Delegating.

There can be very practical reasons why, even though it’s not the best long term approach, you really do need to get personally involved in doing tasks you would have liked to delegate:

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  • Got to get it done under severe time pressure Having all hands on deck, including yours, may be the only way you can avoid the terrible consequences of missing a drop-dead deadline.  But the fact that you had to step in and do some of this work yourself may suggest either poor planning or a failure to develop the capabilities of your staff. 

  • Need to plug holes because you are continually short-handed If you find that you simply do not have enough people to do all of the work that you are responsible for managing, you will likely have to do some of this work yourself far more often than you would like. This may indicate a failure to manage your resources in a way that maintains appropriate numbers of people with appropriate capabilities. 

  • Some members of your team are unable to perform at the required standard Doing work that team members should be able to do on their own may be the only way that these tasks get done properly. This may indicate, however, that you need to pay more attention to developing the skills of your team members or that you are not facing up to a necessary termination decision.

Some Very Right Reasons for Doing Instead of Delegating

Finally, there are situations where it can be very useful for you, as a manager, to get directly involved in doing work you might have delegated: 

Lead by example  Occasionally doing tasks that you are still good at highlights your personal commitment to achieving a high performance standard and can demonstrate strategies and techniques that are useful for excelling at these tasks. 

  • Assess your team member’s performance  Working alongside your colleagues from time to time allows you to assess their on-the-job knowledge and skills so that you have a better idea of their learning gaps and how best to deploy them in the future 

  • Build team capability through on-the-job training Being right there with your team gives you opportunities to offer on-the-spot coaching and feedback in areas where you have special expertise

  • Improve your team members’ morale when they are facing a tough challenge Rolling up your sleeves and helping out when your team is stressed can lift your team’s spirits and increase their respect for you as their leader  

  • Determine if the systems and processes  that  you and  top management have put into place are working Helping your team do its work from time to time allows you to observe first-hand if your team is organized in a way that is productive and if your organization’s infrastructure and support mechanisms are helping or hindering your team’s functionality.

You're not managing if you're not delegating?  Occasionally bending this hallowed precept of management orthodoxy will help you as a manager do a better job of keeping up with your field and leading your people. 

Worried that you won’t have enough time to both delegate and do?  Learn how to replace multi-tasking with multi-impacting.  More on this in our next Can-Do Leader blog.

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