Widely used in the workplace, delegation is extremely effective when employed successfully. The most traditional example of delegation is a manager assigning tasks to an employee. However, colleagues who ask each other for help on a given task or project are also delegating, albeit informally.
Previously we identified delegation as a useful way to achieve progress when we are stuck in procrastination—in other words, outsourcing a task to a qualified subordinate or peer to manage around our own area of weakness. Highly productive managers and employees utilize effective delegation for a multitude of applications beyond getting themselves “unstuck”—for instance, reducing overload, lowering stress, and reaching milestones more quickly.
Successful Delegates Communicate Their Level of Expectation
Business coaches and management consultants have identified as many as seven different levels of delegation. These levels reflect the degree of autonomy with which the delegated task is expected to be performed. At the lowest level, or no autonomy, the expectation is to “do exactly as I say.” The delegate provides specific instructions from which there is to be no deviation, for any reason. At the highest level of delegation, the expectation allows for complete autonomy: “Take care of this for me. Use your best judgment and do whatever is necessary.” Midway along the continuum is, “Look into this and report back with a recommendation, but don’t take action until I give my blessing.”
Too often, delegation occurs without clearly identifying and communicating the level of autonomy involved. When a manager does clearly communicate intentions, or an employee does not fully understand instructions and expectations, then a poor outcome is likely to result. For example, a motivated and well-meaning employee may overstep his or her bounds by acting outside of directives, with unintended consequences. Alternatively, a task may be left incomplete or a situation unresolved when an employee believes he or she has feels less empowered than is actually the case. In order to avoid misunderstanding, managers must identify the level at which they are delegating. They must also verify that their employees clearly understand what is expected of them.
Forgiveness vs. Permission
For employees who find themselves in the challenging situation of performing a delegated task without a clear understanding of their manager’s expectations, the concept “Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission” may be a useful rule of thumb. Simply put, this means to act using one’s best judgment, as opposed to delaying action while seeking permission to move forward. In choosing to act, one must be willing to accept responsibility (ask forgiveness) for a poor decision or outcome. Forgiveness vs. permission is a common attitude among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and it is also found in established companies throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
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