Delegation: An Essential Tool, but so Difficult

This post originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Time Management magazine.

Cartoons such as the Simpsons, or those from Disney or the Warner Brothers, are examples of great delegation in action. In the old days, before computers, the individual cels that made up the images were hand-drawn and hand-colored. With thousands of cels needed for just one minute of animation, there was a great need for people who could paint the ones that filled the moments between major action points. The chief artist would create the first image, as well as the outlines for the subsequent cels, and then the “Tweeners” would do the painting in between.

The same technique is used in modern computer-assisted animation, and of course, this technique of handing off work to qualified professionals is done in all kinds of ways in all kinds of other industries. Of course it is. It’s called sub-contracting. Or it could simply be considered part of the production process. Or part of the supply chain. Whatever name it goes by, it is an accepted and essential part of getting things done.

The chief ingredient in successful sub-contracting is the professionalism and reliability of the suppliers. They are held to high account due to economic necessity: customers will only pay for quality service, and the best source of new business is referral.

Because it is incumbent on the supplier to maintain quality and expertise, the customer’s trust in the supplier is largely established through its behaviour.

It must never be forgotten that trust is the central issue.

Sub-contracting, then, is simply delegation between two unrelated entities, who are held together through trust for mutual business benefit.

It is this same trust that must act as the bedrock of any internal delegation opportunity.

Trust is an emotion, and all humans operate on emotion.

Humans have two sides to their sentient existence, the first being emotion, the other being rationality, and emotion always wins. It is the root of every decision a person makes. Wisdom comes from balancing emotion with an equal measure of logic, but this does not negate the fact that emotion makes the final call.

That is why so many people have a hard time delegating. They do not yet trust that another individual can do the job correctly. They might also be fearful about the amount of time it will take to properly teach someone, and they might also fear that making someone else capable of this skill would reduce their own exclusivity and value.

This particular fear situation demands that key rational facts be put in place in order to establish balance and consequently establish trust.

To start with, there must be a clear knowledge that the student has mastered the skill to a completely satisfactory level.

Establishing this level of ability requires adequate training, and that is what goes missing from so many delegation exercises, which is why so many of them fail. Students and subordinates are handed tasks that they are unready for. They are unwittingly set up to disappoint.

To delegate, one must educate, and education is an iterative procedure. It requires understanding and kinesthetic experiences that together create what is called “unconscious competence,” basically the ability to do something without having to concentrate too hard. For most adults, tying shoelaces or driving a car would be examples of unconscious competence.

A student needs to learn in steps; therefore a teacher – the person doing the delegating – must be prepared to teach in steps, budgeting sufficient time to both teach and to finish off the task.

In other words, delegation is not dumping. It is counterproductive and time-consuming to assign someone a task for which they are not ready. Delegation requires a budgeting of time and an allotment of attention.

“Forget it,” people say, “I don’t have the time to show you. I will just have to do it myself.” But this would be the perfect time to introduce a student to the technique. “I have to do it myself,” you might say, “but come over here and watch me.” This sparks a learning interest in the student, whereas simply dismissing a student for lack of time does the opposite. It starts to extinguish enthusiasm for the job.

A student can watch, and then practice and then learn. A student will make mistakes, and a teacher must have the patience and time to expect and handle these. Learning is a comparative process, comparing what a person knows to what they are hearing for the first time, and comparing what a person can do against what they are trying to do. Mistakes will be made. The teacher’s reaction to these mistakes dictates the ultimate success of this exercise.

Over three or four iterations, a student should show increasing grasp of the task, and improved skills. The proportions of the task handled by the teacher should diminish as the student becomes more and more competent, to the point, eventually, where the teacher feels confident enough (an emotional assessment) based on observation (the logical counterpart) to let go of the task and entrust it to the employee.

It should be remembered also there are two major reasons for delegation. The first is that it frees up the teacher to take on tasks of greater value or urgency. Any time a task can be offloaded to another capable individual, it should be. There are always more valuable things that can be done. Secondly, allowing a student to take on more challenging tasks is an excellent retention strategy. Most employees want to learn; they want to develop new skills, be stimulated, stretched, and envision opportunities for advancement. Most employees take pride in their work and seek new ways to demonstrate their value. By delegating work to subordinates, a teacher helps ensure the retention of good staff. Hiring and training new employees is costly and time-consuming, but rewarding existing employees with new challenges helps leverage the investment already made in them.

Finally there is the notion of innovation. It is entirely possible that a student will actually be able to do the task better than the teacher, using new techniques, technologies or attitudes. This is the essence of innovation and of kaizen (continuous improvement), and offers a company a chance to move forward, one technique and person at a time.

For people who are hesitant to delegate, it is important to ask “why.” If it is a lack of trust or of time, this can be handled through iterative teaching, as described above. If it is the fear of redundancy, that in teaching a task to another, one’s own value wanes, it is usually the case that a good teacher and manager of others becomes more valuable, not less.