Delegating Must be a Two-Way Street

by | Feb 20, 2021 | Blog

Delegating seems to be a difficult skill to master.

The Most Common Leadership Issue

As a leadership consultant the most common leadership issue I hear about is delegation. It seems to be a difficult skill for many leaders to master.

The skill I teach leaders is that they need to create an environment where they can be clear about priorities, importance, and making sure the person being delegated to has both the capacity and skill needed. It requires a conversation that is bi-directional.

Typical Bad Approach

Here’s an example of a typical delegation conversation that I hear. In this scenario Ralph is the leader and John is the person receiving the assignment. See if you can spot the errors and challenge yourself to think about what you would do differently.

“Hello John, good morning.”

“Good morning Ralph.”

John, I have something I need you to do – we have this new product hitting the market as you know. Marketing is pushing us to get the customer support documents in place so they can be published at the same time as the product’s release. I know you have a lot going on, but could you get the XYZ product customer support documents organized and published onto our intranet page for marketing to pick up by Dec 5th?”

“Ok Ralph, I’ll sure give that my best shot.”

“Thanks John, I knew I could count on you.”

Analyzing the Conversation

Result for Ralph

Ralph heads back to the office pretty pleased with himself thinking something like this:

“I see that the micro-course on delegation I took really works. John understood exactly what I wanted to have happen and now we’ll get the XYZ product customer support docs ready and we’ll beat the release schedule. This is going to be a great win for our department.”

Impact on John

John heads back to his office stewing, thinking something like this:

“The XYZ product is not as important as the five other products I support. How could Ralph dump on me like this? I simply don’t know how I could possibly get this done on time and I’m sick of working extra hours to do more and more. I’m going to prioritize as best I can and just see what happens, but I’m not going to sweat it if I can’t get to it.”

The final outcome is predictable. Ralph thinks John’s on track, and John’s not happy with Ralph or the company.

Fast Forward

Let’s fast forward in this “fictional” scenario to December 6, the day after the project was due and we can imagine the following conversation.

“John, I logged into the intranet portal this morning and didn’t see the XYZ doc there? What happened?” 

“Ralph, I know you wanted this done by December 5th. I’ve been working extra hours all month to get it done, but with the 5 other key products I support, all having new releases coming in January, and all having a strong existing customer base and revenues, I simply couldn’t get to the XYZ document.”

John tries hard to hold back his emotion, but he blurts out something like, “Are you serious? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ralph, not completely happy either says something like, “You didn’t ask.”

Rewind to the Right Way

Here’s the way the conversation could have gone, which would have produced a very different outcome. Challenge yourself to identify what is different between the first scenario and the rewind.

“Hello John, good morning.”

“Good morning Ralph.”

“John, I have something I need you to do – we have this new product hitting the market as you know. Marketing is pushing us to get the customer support documents in place so they can be published at the same time as the product’s release. I know you have a lot going on, but could you get the XYZ product customer support documents organized and published onto our intranet page for marketing to pickup by Dec 5th?”

“Ok Ralph, I’ll sure give that my best shot. But, I think we should discuss my priorities. I know you are aware of the 5 other products I support and that each of them has a new release in January. As I forecast my work, I’m not sure how I’ll be able to get those done and do the XYZ product at the same time. I mean, I want to, the XYZ looks really cool and interesting. But, I feel obligated to support existing revenue streams. How do you want me to re-prioritize?”

“Thanks John for telling me this – I totally did not connect those dots. Wow, we need to really think this through. Here’s what we’ll do, I’ll schedule a time for us to get together this week for a micro-planning/prioritizing session and we’ll tease out the details of the priorities together. Whatever falls below the cut-line we’ll have to then figure out what should happen to it. I have a feeling that the XYZ product is important enough that we might outsource the support for some existing product lines so we can focus your creativity on XYZ – but let’s prioritize first and I’ll then get a read on it from the executives.”

Result for Ralph

Ralph heads back to his office thinking,

“What are my options for freeing up more of John’s time? He’s my best person for new product support and the XYZ product has the potential to be a major revenue producer. We’d better get this right. Before I meet with John, I’m going to check in with Clara [boss] to see what budget latitude we have for outsourcing some existing support stuff.”

Impact on John

John heads back to his office feeling good about working at this company. He thinks to himself,

“I really want to work on the XYZ product and I’m glad we are going to have this prioritizing session. I’d love to move some of these existing requirements off of my plate… Ralph’s a pretty good boss.”

Reverse Transparency Makes All the Difference

The difference between these two scenarios was the level of mutual engagement and reverse transparency. We often expect the leader to be transparent and to be thorough in explaining assignments, deadlines, and expectations. But what really makes the delegation in the rewind scenario effective is the reverse transparency that occurs by John (the employee). Mutual engagement and proper delegation cannot happen without reverse transparency.

Reverse Transparency Defined

The person receiving delegation is completely open and honest about their capacity, skill, timing, or other constraints.

Without the reverse transparency offered by the employee in the above case, the leader makes a huge mistake because he does not understand the employee’s priorities and work commitments in adequate detail.

There is a second benefit of reverse transparency, and that is an opportunity for the leader to see the assignment through the eyes of the employee and to gain their perspective. In other words, it’s a real-life application of empathy in the working world and it produces mutual understanding. 

Notice that in order for that understanding to occur, however, the person being delegated to must be equally transparent in their communication when they receive an assignment. This is hard for people to do.

Why People Don’t Push Back

An essential part of delegating effectively is creating an environment where people can be transparent without worrying about being negatively judged. Let’s face it, when an employee pushes back it requires boldness on their part and there is a significant risk for them.

Personal Risk

The first big reason people don’t push back in order to force a prioritization discussion of their workload is out of fear. They are afraid that they may be fired or let go, they are afraid that they may not get the raise they want, or they are afraid that they will not be seen in a favorable light for promotion, or they may simply be afraid that they will be seen in lesser light and not be given future opportunity. These fears are all a very real risk for people as they navigate the working world of assignments given to them.

Business Risk

The second major reason people don’t push back is because they have a strong commitment to their clients. This may sound odd. The truth is that people are more loyal to those closest to them, and if a person has an existing customer base (internal or external) they will often guard that base by serving it first, even at the expense of a new and exciting project.

Perception Risk

A third reason people don’t push back is that they feel an obligation to pull their weight in the organization. They want to do the work that comes their way. They understand the organization has resource constraints and that everyone has to sacrifice. They then unwittingly accept assignments without pushing back out of a sense of duty to the greater good. Unfortunately, the result is almost always negative.

What a Leader Must Do

Create an environment where reverse transparency can flourish.

If a leader has not created an environment where the employee can be equally honest and transparent about the real work they are doing and how much of their capacity it consumes, the leader has no way of understanding the employee’s true priorities or their true capacity for work and will routinely make bad assumptions. Those bad assumptions will lead to a piling on of additional work that probably will not get done. The result is deflated morale and lowered motivation.

The bottom-line

Leaders and followers both need to strive for openness and transparency in their relationships and make delegating a bi-directional relationship that is mutually engaging.

Regardless of the delegation technique used, giving someone something that they have no capacity to do is in effect dumping and not delegating. It leaves a bad feeling for the person receiving the assignment and it sets false hope for the person giving the assignment.

Continue Learning

I invite you to look at our Lead the People series to gain deeper insights into delegation and other common leadership problems. In this program you’ll find a specific LeaderPod on the topic of Empowering and Delegating.

Article Written by Dr. Gordon Whitehead

Article Written by Dr. Gordon Whitehead

Founder of Leaders247

Gordon Whitehead is the founder of Leaders247 and specializes in leadership and organizational development with a particular interest in helping emerging leaders accelerate their leadership growth.

If you haven’t already, we’d love it if you would consider subscribing to our blog.