Delegating: the key that unlocks people power

''If you do it right, delegating should promote a healthy, well-functioning organization, and one with the best chance to grow,'' says Kris Mayne, who teaches the art of delegating in Washington, D.C.

Delegating does more than free you up, experts say. It puts control of the project where it belongs - at the local level - and it makes the best use of an organization's people power.

''The manager who refuses to delegate is not unlike the person who has considerable money but refuses to use it even to earn interest,'' says Dale D. McConkey in ''No-Nonsense Delegation.'' ''The wise manager delegates as much as his people can handle; in doing so he maximizes the return on the people investment with which his organization has entrusted him.''

To make the most of that asset, Ms. Mayne advises, you need to know the talents and interests of your employees. As executive director of a local, nonprofit agency, she sits down with her staff on a regular basis to ''go over what their interests and talents are, what their goals are for the next six months, and the types of projects they want to take on. That way I already have some sort of commitment before the task comes up.''

Even with this commitment, employees (or family members) still need to be ''sold'' on the tasks they're assigned, the experts say. ''Present it enthusiastically, but name the drawbacks involved,'' says Ms. Mayne. ''I always like to mention the opportunities for learning and the way it will help the agency,'' she says.

Once you've made your case, she says, ''see if they agree with you. If there's radical disagreement, try to find out why. Is it because they really hate the project, or simply that they're unsure they can carry it out?'' If it's the latter, ''offer lots of support, and see if you can assign someone as an adviser.''

It is also crucial at this point to spell out exactly what you want done. ''State these goals in terms of measurable results, not activities,'' say Neely D. Gardner and John N. Davis in ''The Art of Delegating.'' Stating what you expect gives the employee the freedom to create the best means of achieving that goal, the authors say.

Ah, but how can you be sure they won't abuse that freedom?

''I felt that way,'' says Ms. Mayne, who has had several years' experience managing volunteer and paid staffs. When she went from being the director of volunteers at an organization to the executive director, she had to oversee the person who took her former job.

''I told her exactly how to do every little thing,'' she reports, ''until one day she told me to get off her back. And she was perfectly right. I was thinking that because I'd done the job one way, that was the only way to do it.

''Then I backed off, gave her the general outlines of the job, and watched her do stuff that I'd never tried before, or even thought of trying,'' Ms. Mayne says, with obvious admiration.

Still, it is sometimes hard for managers to resist the temptation to hover over their employees, she observes. ''So when you're outlining the project in the beginning, be sure to put in some regular times when the employee will report on the project - either in writing or by chatting together. That gives you the control you need, and gives them the freedom they need to do a good job.''

Sometimes a problem arises when a manager trusts particular employees too much and tends to delegate everything to them instead of spreading the work around. The solution is to ''think over the talents and strengths of each of your employees very carefully when projects come up, and try especially hard to give projects to those whose talents still need to be developed,'' Ms. Mayne says.

She also suggests using a chart listing the activities of your organization - who is in charge of each activity and when it is scheduled to be finished. ''That way you can see at a glance who's working on what and can tell if anyone is getting overloaded.''

What if you're the overloaded one, and the delegator doesn't appear to notice? ''Take the time to make out a list,'' Ms. Mayne suggests, ''showing what you're assigned to and how much time each activity takes. Then put them in some sort of order, showing what's important.''

Armed with this list, you can approach your boss and ''tell him how much you appreciate the way he values you and the trust he puts in you. But then show him exactly what you're juggling and tell him you can't spend enough time on the important projects because you have all these other, lesser projects to cope with.''

Even with a reasonable workload, sometimes employees aren't able to complete the work delegated to them because ''they get the responsibility without the authority,'' says Ms. Mayne. Never accept a job without both the tools and power necessary to get it done.

''Delegation takes place only if the superior's power has been transferred to the subordinate,'' says Mr. McConkey. Without such power transferral, ''the result invariably is confusion over the delegation and a hesitation to act on the part of the subordinate,'' he explains.

Finally, say the experts, be sure to give credit for a job well done. ''People really want to contribute and feel that they've made a difference,'' Ms. Mayne says. ''I've seen this work on employees, volunteers, and members of a board of directors.''

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