Hand the work over

Delegation is a bit like flying a kite. You have to loosen the strings for it to work but still keep control at a distance. But sometimes front-line managers can find it hard to give their staff the independence needed for delegation to work.

For the more experienced, it can be one of the happiest words in the manager’s lexicon: right up there with “lease-car”, “expenses” and “away-days”. This word conjures up other people doing things that managers don’t have either the time or inclination to do. It speaks of a team of people all working to a common purpose like a well-oiled machine.

But if you ask staff about delegation they may well perceive it as a burden: the sort of thing that falls uncomfortably within the “and any other task commensurate with the post” item on their job description.

They may see it as something characteristic of lazy managers who can’t be bothered to do the things themselves.

But delegation should be viewed more positively as stress-reducing and as one of the most creative tools available. We all seem to have a long list of tasks and functions to carry out. The trick is being able to prioritise and decide what can only be done by a manager and what can and should be done by other staff.

There will be areas of performance that are not your forte but which are possessed in abundance by others in the team. By allowing them to act for you, you will not only strengthen the outcomes for your service users, but you will be boosting the potential within your group of staff and supporting their personal development.

But there are also some drawbacks to delegation:

  • If those to whom you have delegated do not make progress on their particular project this could reflect on you and can delay the whole project.
  • Delegation can be resented by more junior staff who may already be stretched to capacity and struggle to manage additional work.
  • It might mean that accountability issues are blurred -Êwhere does the buck stop if things don’t progress?
  • It isn’t work-free: checking on progress can be a time-consuming task in itself.

But there are ways of doing it. Reliable theory and even more reliable common sense would suggest that people have six criteria for being productive:

  • Freedom of movement (especially for decision-making).
  • Variety.
  • Learning (ongoing).
  • Support, trust and respect.
  • Meaningfulness.
  • Future prospects.

Further, a job is far more likely to be done well if a person has overall responsibility for it. It may take longer to explain the “why” as well as the “what”, but in doing so you can often then leave the “how” up to the individual. If a person feels responsible they are likely to be more careful, go that extra mile, and think about what they are doing – potentially saving far more time in the long run. Delegate the problem not the task.

Start with some clear messages. Staff to whom you delegate will need to understand that you remain accountable and that there are boundaries. Also, it is pointless to disempower someone to the extent that they are unable to act. You need to agree on how progress will be monitored. A lack of clarity or unaired assumptions can result in uncertainty.

So draw up a plan. Its success will be judged by the achievement of agreed outcomes. Blend the collection of skills within your staff group to work towards those outcomes. You will match skill and task. Some decisions and actions will be best left to you as the leader but a number can be carried out by others depending on their knowledge, seniority and competence. It is all about the kite again: making sure you loosen the right strings at the right time without letting the whole thing blow away and crash into the bushes.

Another common question is: “How much should I delegate?” The answer: “As much as possible”. People like to be needed and we as managers are not irreplaceable or even the best at what we do.

When staff are trained, supported and informed they are likely to develop their capabilities much faster than the work often develops.

So, give people a whole job wherever possible and the responsibility that comes with it. And don’t be scared to pass on those difficult problems: just be prepared for someone else to come along and make them look easy.

See you later, delegator.

Sheena Doyle is an independent social care consultant; Daphne Obang is director of social services and housing, Bracknell Forest; Claire Smart, purchasing manager, Gloucestershire social services.

When I was…

…working for another authority, the chief officer of an organisation was in the habit of asking senior managers from her team to attend partnership meetings that were attended by officers similarly delegated from other organisations. However, whereas the other delegates were able to speak on behalf of their organisations, decision making was always held up by this one organisation because that chief officer’s delegates would say they needed to get back to her first. (DO)

…working in a factory the foreman pointed vaguely to a pile of solenoids and asked me to dismantle them. About 200 solenoids later, he realised he had wrongly pointed to the ones that had just been assembled. Had he explained why he wanted them dismantled in the first place a few weeks work might never have been wasted. (CS)

Top tips

  • Think of people’s sanity: vary the work.
  • Trust people and encourage them to think of solutions themselves.
  • Be prepared to take risks – we learn more from mistakes than successes.
  • Delegation frees up your time to concentrate on the primary issues you should be focused on.
  • Give staff the opportunity to stretch their skills and experience management tasks.

Rubbish tips

  • If you can’t hang on to the jobs that you enjoy, what is the point of being a manager?
  • Give staff the boring and mundane stuff – they won’t be able to mess that up.
  • You’re the manager – you have to show that you are the best at everything. Delegation is a sign of weakness.


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