Delegation Can Be a Catalyst for Increased Employee Engagement

There’s much to be gained when managers learn how to take things off their plates and delegate

Delegation Can Be a Catalyst for Increased Employee Engagement

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It may sound too good to be true, but there’s actually an easy way for managers to become more productive as well as develop the skills of their direct reports, build their confidence and make them feel more engaged. Better yet, it costs absolutely nothing (except a small investment in time) and can lead to improvements in organizational productivity and innovation.  

It all boils down to one small word that can spur big results: delegate.

Think about it for a minute. Entrusting employees with additional responsibilities frees up time for managers to do more strategic, big-picture thinking. At the same time, it enables employees to build their skill sets, making them more viable candidates for promotions. Moreover, when done correctly, giving up-and-coming employees additional responsibilities — and giving them the freedom to figure out how to achieve those tasks, without any micromanaging — often can lead to better and innovative processes and products.

“The problem with not delegating is the fact that people who can’t make decisions tend to be very unmotivated,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford University business school professor and author of What Were They Thinking? Unconventional Wisdom About Management and Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It. “So without delegation, there’s less employee engagement. Most people find autonomy is a positive aspect of a job. Moreover, delegating benefits organizations because more-engaged employees are less likely to quit their jobs. And being micromanaged is one thing that predicts stress and ill health for employees. Feeling like you have some control over your job is a very important part of living a healthy life.”

Ego is an issue

In short, delegating is a win-win-win for managers, employees and organizations. But despite all this, many managers still find it difficult to do. Why? One primary factor is ego and control issues, Pfeffer says.

“Studies show that delegating is difficult because many of us believe that every decision we make is better for having us involved in it,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as very effective, so everything we do is better if we’re involved in it. It’s all based on the illusion of control.”

A host of other factors may also dissuade managers from delegating. For one, they may think that by the time they show someone else how to do something, they could’ve done it themselves. Or going back to the ego thing, they feel they can perform tasks better than anyone else.

Other times it’s a trust issue; managers don’t believe employees will do things correctly and fear the employees’ failure will reflect badly on their managerial skills. Or perhaps they feel threatened — that as employees gain experience and skills, they’ll soon be taking aim at their managers’ jobs.

Honest assessment

How can organizations and managers go about changing such deeply ingrained behaviors? Change is never easy, but recognizing that there’s a problem, as the saying goes, is the first step toward solving it.

In that vein, managers need to stop and take an honest, unflinching look at how they operate. One clear sign that things are amiss: working insanely long hours each week. In other words, if you’re too busy to delegate, you need to start making time for delegating.

Keep in mind that delegating doesn’t mean asking employees to perform small tasks. In order for them to grow as employees, they need something substantive to dig into. At the same time, it should be something that they’re capable of handling, yet still requires them to stretch their capabilities, experts note.

In addition, it’s critical to set clear, definite goals, including specific deadlines. It helps greatly to explain why the project or task is important and how it fits into an organization’s overall strategies and goals. This provides context that reinforces employee buy-in. Skipping these steps only sets employees up for failure, experts say.

It’s also important to ensure employees have the proper resources at hand to complete projects, as well as to touch base with them periodically to make sure things are on track. And when the task is completed, set aside some time to evaluate it — discuss what worked and what didn’t and how things could be improved the next time around. This builds a sense of accountability.

New mindset required

Above all, resist the temptation to micromanage and intervene, which totally squelches the very things delegating is supposed to engender: creating more time for managers to do higher-priority tasks and empowering employees to better themselves.

“Your job is not to do people’s work for them, but to help them get better at doing their jobs,” Pfeffer says. “Not many people see their work that way. You need to become more of a teacher and less of a doer.”

In addition, managers who delegate have to acknowledge that sometimes employees won’t succeed at their new responsibilities.

“To help employees get smarter and spur more innovation, you have to tolerate failure,” Pfeffer says. “There is no learning without failure.”

Management can help increase managers’ ability to delegate, too, by increasing the number of people they supervise. While this may sound counterintuitive, Pfeffer suggests that when managers have more reports than they can reasonably supervise and micromanage, it forces them to delegate.

In the end, changing managerial styles can be a challenge. But the rewards are worth the effort.

“Think about how much more fun employees’ jobs become when they get to do new and more interesting work,” Pfeffer says. “If you do all the work, employees remain nothing but subordinates. They don’t grow. And that’s not a good thing.”

So go ahead — take a deep, cleansing breath, leave your ego at the door and start delegating. And if you don’t have time to do so, all the more reason to start.


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