Moving work from one person to another is a mainstay of business – not in an “I don’t want to do it myself,” kind of way (although that certainly happens enough of the times) but more because that’s just how delegation works. My boss gets (or creates) an assignment relevant to my world and turns it over to me to insure it gets done. I then delegate it to someone on my staff who’s most responsible for (or would most benefit from) doing that particular whatever.
Rinse and repeat with the next new assignment.
Goldilocks Delegation Language
Given how important delegation is to keeping things running smoothly, though, it’s a shame how many bosses still struggle with the most basic of delegation discussions:
- Some are too soft – “Say, would you do me a favor?” – Sure, your ‘special assignments,’ ‘hot-hot’ items, ‘new #1 priorities,’ ‘yet another interruption,’ or whatever your staff may call them behind your back, can disrupt direct reports from what they’re already working on, but your job is to assign work to people – and their job is to complete that work…on time and to specifications. Framing assignments as ‘favors’ is weak and wrong. Why? Because completing assignments (on time and to specifications) is a requirement of their jobs, not a suggestion. Assignments are, as the word implies, work that is ‘assigned’ by someone (you) to someone else (them) for the express purpose of getting something done. Furthermore, suggesting that you need a ‘favor’ from them creates a false quid pro quo – that if they do this thing for you, you’ll do something, in return, for them. No. The real quid pro quo is this: If you do your job, you’ll get to keep your job. Now I suggest that you always thank them, afterwards, and respect them, thoroughly, throughout. But there’s absolutely no need to call in favors when assigning tasks to those who report to you. No need whatsoever.
- Some are too hard – “Shut up and comply; I’m the boss!” – Know this: Just because you have authority doesn’t mean you should rub people’s noses in it. (And the more authority you have, the more polite you should be, as far as I’m concerned.) But weak leaders often feel they need to ‘assert their authority’ when doling out assignments. Wrong. It’s your job, as boss, to assign your staff things to do. So quit the histrionics. Relax. Chill. Just let them know you’ve got something for them to do. Politely. Respectfully. Clearly.
One of the biggest reasons bosses don’t get the end-product they’re hoping for from staff, when delegating, is because their assignments lack the specificity needed to know what actually needs to be done. A full decade ago, I proposed a solution to this problem: Delegate Outcomes Rather Than Just Tasks. Consider the examples I provided in April 2006, and their relevance a full decade later:
- Presenting Issue #1: A customer complaint needs to be addressed.
- What delegating the task might sound like: “Here, go talk to this person.”
- What delegating the outcome might sound like: “Here, go make this customer happy again.”
- Presenting Issue #2: A vendor order needs to be expedited.
- What delegating the task might sound like: “Here, go track this order.”
- What delegating the outcome might sound like: “Here, go insure the successful – and timely – delivery of this order.”
- Presenting Issue #3: Recent sales figures are below expectations.
- What delegating the task might sound like: “Here, go research this report.”
- What delegating the outcome might sound like: “Here, go determine what needs to be done to get these numbers back on track.”
So let’s get it ‘just right’ by making sure you include these three pieces of information in each and every assignment you delegate:
- What you need – as per above, frame it as an outcome, rather than a task
- When it’s due – and so nothing falls into the ‘black hole’ of delegation, how you want to be notified of its completion
- How you will use what’s provided – helping people understand how their work will fit into a bigger picture helps reinforce its importance and ask better questions in clarifying items (1) and (2), if needed.
Practice Makes Perfect
Then, rinse and repeat, again and again, with each new assignment. And keep practicing this protocol until it becomes your natural ‘default’ for how you delegate. Practice it, as well, when receiving assignments from your boss. It works!
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- and, of course, my book – Leadership Haiku
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