The Delegation Boomerang

Have you ever noticed that delegation doesnt always work? Have you ever given one of your subordinates a task and a few days later found it back on your to-do list? I call this the delegation boomerang effect.

When this happens, most managers like to think of themselves as victims. I often hear something like, My people just arent up to the job, so I have to do it myself. Woe is me.

But this is silly. Usually, its not that the people cant do the job, but that the manager doesnt want them to do the job. The manager wants the job for himself, no matter how much he protests to the contrary.

The boomerang effect happens because managers get stymied by the emotional obstacles to giving away responsibility and authority. While they tell the subordinates that they want to delegate decision-making power or cool technical work, they really want it for themselves and find ways to take it back. Sometimes the subordinates give it back because they dont want the responsibility, the work or the risk of accepting blame. But sometimes it happens because managers and subordinates have differing assumptions about what has been delegated, the degree of empowerment provided and the level of individual initiative expected.

The problems with this scenario are fairly obvious. A big part of the point of management is to make a group of people productive by enabling parallel activity, but when delegation fails, work becomes single-threaded. This situation is not just a problem for managers, but also for subordinates. Generally, technical people want to accept responsibility, take on tasks, learn and grow. But when delegation fails, subordinates see no opportunity to grow. They lose initiative and become dependent.

So, how does this happen? Ive seen three general modalities.

1. Status reporting becomes decision-making. Most commonly, a subordinate starts out offering a status report. Next thing you know, it seems the boss has a decision to make, effectively taking back responsibility. It happens either because the subordinate asks for it or because the boss feels uncomfortable accepting information without taking some sort of action. But when this happens, the boss is subliminally telling the subordinate that he expects a low level of initiative.

2. Authority reverts to recommendation. When youve delegated decision-making authority, sometimes subordinates come back with recommendations and analysis rather than decisions. Here the subordinate is asking to be relieved of authority.

3. Micromanagement discourages initiative. Here the boss becomes so intrusive in monitoring progress that the subordinate assumes that the boss doesnt really want to delegate after all and lets him take back control.

So, how do you make delegated tasks stay where you put them?

1. Know yourself. Try to be aware of how you feel about delegation. If you are ambivalent about it, reflect on why and whether you can reliably delegate this task.

2. Dont catch the boom­erang. When someone offers you a status report, rather than telling him what to do, ask him what he plans to do. When he offers recommendations, thank him for the update and ask him what he plans to do. And resist the temptation to micromanage.

3. Clarify the level of initiative you expect when you delegate a task. Explain whether you are delegating authority or just a task. Ask whether the person is comfortable accepting this degree of delegation. Make sure that you both agree on expectations.

4. Say it again. When someone tries to give you back a task, reiterate the level of initiative you described at the outset. Remind the person of your initial agreement.

With a bit of self-awareness and discipline, you can make delegation work. You need not be a victim of the delegation boomerang effect.

Paul Glen is the founder of the GeekLeaders.com Web community and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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