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How Come Delegation Never Works?

Here’s a question a frustrated manager recently asked me,  “How come delegation never works?”.  It’s a question (or a variation of it) that I have heard many times over the years.  You might have even thought something similar yourself. 

Perhaps you have managed a team who never seemed to complete anything you asked them to do, or if they did it took too long, or it wasn’t to the standard you would expect.  And maybe you wonder to yourself where the person you interviewed all those weeks/months/years ago went? 

You know, the person who was all bright and sparkly at their interview.  The person you could see in the role.  The one who you believed would show the rest of the team a thing or two and shake things up a bit? 

And now you are struggling to see what you saw in them in the first place, as they seem incapable of being pro-active, of making a decision, of coming up with an idea, or even of just doing what you asked them to do!

Sound familiar?

Well, it’s only to be expected because delegation never works. 

No – I’m serious.  It never works.  And there are only 2 reasons.

First reason – you hired the wrong people.  They are completely incapable, couldn’t start a fire in a fireworks factory and really should give you their wages back at the end of the month. (Spoiler – I’m kidding). 

Second reason.  You’re doing it wrong (spoiler AGAIN – it is always this one).

It’s not really your fault.  I mean the whole word ‘delegation’ sets it off to a doomed end from the start. 

No-one likes being ‘delegated to’. 

But people DO like to be trained, encouraged, given responsibility, trusted, empowered, encouraged, given some freedom to make decisions.  Can you see the difference?

Where delegation often goes wrong is in 3 places.

Abdication.  Manipulation.  And Annihilation.

Abdication is delegation on steroids, where steroids are the wrong prescription!

As a leader, you are responsible for everything that comes out of your department or company.  What some leaders do, is throw the problem at one of their subordinates, without finding out what help or support that person may need, without checking their understanding of the issue, and without any checks and balances (support) in place. 

They literally throw you the ball and expect you to run with it, without checking that you have 2 legs, or know where you are running to, and without pit stops along the way. 

Well, this is bound to go wrong, isn’t it?  As much as the employee may want to please, if they don’t know what they are doing, or aren’t sure of the parameters, or the expected final result – then it is all on a hiding to nowhere. 

Managers who do this are either forced into doing it as they literally cannot fit the work into their own day, or they think they are doing someone a favour by giving them the ‘chance to shine’ which more often then not turns into ‘the chance to fail’.

Manipulation, is delegation on Hallucinogenics.

This type of delegation is performed by a manager using emotional blackmail, or false promises.  The opportunity is not what it seems.  There are smoke and lots of mirrors! 

This type of delegation is always done for the benefit of the delegator.  This manager wants to get rid of the ‘sh*t’ jobs on his or her To-Do list and believes that by alluding to possible beneficial outcomes, or by telling a sob story, they will be able to shift this grunt work onto a willing victim.

The problem here is – this doesn’t work long term. 

It soon becomes clear that this is not what it seems, and the delegated person starts to resent the manager.  They become demotivated and therefore (consciously or subconsciously) start to deliver poor quality work or miss deadlines. 

Annihilation – is delegation with poison.

This type of ‘delegation’ is guaranteed to prevent any future delegation even getting off the ground.  This is where a task or project is assigned to someone / a team.  Maybe there is a brief, maybe even timescales and training.  And then, when the project is delivered, the manager rips it up – physically or metaphorically.

The manager re-does the work themselves because they are not happy with what has been delivered.  Or they don’t even wait for the project to be delivered, they take it back ‘mid project’ because they aren’t happy. 

The problems start with the word ‘Delegation’.

If you ‘empowered’ your team to do something, then you would get a better result, because you have given them what they need and they feel your confidence in them, and their own confidence in themselves. 

If you trusted them (really trusted them) it would be because you knew they could do it – not because you were HOPING you could trust them.   

If you trained your team with all the job and life skills they need to be able to complete a project, then they would complete it. 

So, the next time you need to ‘delegate’ something to someone, consider whether you have empowered, trained and trusted them to do it, or whether you are just setting them up to fail. 

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