Fatal Delegation Mistakes

In BCD, Johanna and I wrote a section “Setup for Successful Delegation.” We wanted to help managers think through the boundaries of a task they’re delegating and be clear—with themselves and the other person—about requirements, unacceptable solutions, progress reporting, and desired results.

Delegation can build trust and capacity when done well. When managers screw it up, the person delegated to feels set up and loses trust.

Some common mistakes:

  • Telling people they have full decision making for the task – when they really don’t
  • Springing a contradictory requirement when the product is delivered
  • Using delegation as a secret test –withholding guidelines or requirements to see if the other person will figure it out
  • Publicly rescinding responsibility for the task
  • Publicly giving the task to someone else
  • Changing the decision making rules on a task previously delegated to a person without telling him/her
  • Asking the rest of the team to approve the product when that wasn’t part of the original delegation

    The dictionary definition for delegate is “to commit or entrust to another.” Every time a manager delegates, there’s the possibility to build commitment and trust or erode trust and engagement.

    Managers—because they are human—won’t do it perfectly every time. When that happens, managers can maintain trust by owning the part of the miscommunication that’s theirs. That might be:

    “I didn’t make it clear that here were some solutions that were out of bounds.”

    “I wasn’t clear that I intended that I retained final approval for the product.”

    “I wasn’t clear that I wanted you to bring options, not a final product.”

    And if you get some bright ideas once you see that product, make that clear, rather than announcing the new idea as a criticism or rejection:

    “Now that I see what you’ve produced, I’m getting some new ideas on how do to this. I sure wish I’d thought of this earlier. I think it’s important enough to reconsider.”