27 September 2023

Rethinking delegation at work

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John Eades* says any manager can delegate tasks, but the best leaders use delegation as a pathway to empowerment.

Have you ever wondered what separates leaders from managers?

The list is long, and it includes things like inspiration instead of motivation and visionary instead of temporary.

However, one significant difference is under your control and is more important than ever today — empowering rather than delegating.

A common piece of advice from executives trying to help less experienced managers is, “you have to delegate more”.

While the suggestion of taking things off of your plate and putting them on someone else’s makes sense on the surface, the intention behind the ask makes the difference.

When leaders delegate, it’s about them.

When leaders empower, it’s about others.

One of the most significant mistakes leaders make is confusing delegation and empowerment.

The Harvard Business Review defines delegation as the transfer of responsibility for specific tasks from one person to another.

From a management perspective, delegation occurs when a manager assigns specific tasks to their employees.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, empowerment is defined as “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights”.

It enables others to be responsible for, and take ownership over something.

I have defined leadership as inspiring, empowering, and serving in order to elevate others.

Empowering others to make decisions is an essential part of successful leadership.

A great example of the difference between delegating and empowering arose during one of my recent coaching calls with a rising star named Kara.

Kara’s clinic was performing well, but she was getting burned out because she did everything.

When asked what would help her, she replied: “I could delegate our supply buying process to one of my team members.”

While it was a great idea, she was thinking about delegation instead of empowerment.

I challenged her to change her thinking.

“Instead of simply asking a team member to start ordering supplies, what if you empowered them to improve the supply-buying process?”

Immediately Kara shifted her mindset from delegation to empowerment.

This was her response as she role-played the conversation with her team member:

“I have been thinking about how we can improve our supply-buying process.

“Since you are so detail-oriented and a great negotiator, would you be open to taking ownership of our supply-buying process for the next three months to see how it goes?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the difference in how the empowerment approach transfers belief and ownership versus delegating a potentially dull task.

Since the invention of the assembly line, delegating tasks to employees has made sense.

However, thanks to remote work during COVID-19, employees want something different and demand flexibility.

On a recent episode of the Work-Life Podcast with author, Adam Grant, when describing the need for companies to rethink flexibility at work, he said this:

“Managers are constantly creating constraints and limiting opportunities.

What’s required is more flexibility while still meeting organisational objectives.”

As obvious as this may sound, its execution is ridiculously challenging.

However, the payoff is a more engaged, innovative, and committed team.

Now that it’s clear the best leaders empower instead of delegate, how can you do it more effectively? Here are a few ideas to explore:

Build a bond of mutual trust

Empowerment requires high levels of trust.

Specifically, trust that’s bound together from every corner of the organisation.

Trust is simply consistency over time.

This means trust is earned through a two-way street paved by consistent action.

A street paved with leaders giving others a chance to earn flexibility so they can be empowered to do their best work.

Then team members willing to be patient and prove they are trustworthy.

Focus on mutual commitments

There is a big difference between being interested and being committed.

The easiest way to have confidence that empowering others is the next move is to have a group of people committed to the mission, each other, and the effort required to succeed.

One way to ensure you have this level of mutual commitment is for each team member to write or say: “My commitment is…”

As simple as this may sound, our words are our bond.

People are more likely to follow through if they verbally commit to themselves.

Share common values and purpose

Money is easily the most popular incentivising tool organisations use to retain and recruit employees.

While pay is significant, it’s not the most important.

People give their best effort when on a team that shares values and purpose.

A consistent and systematic approach to aligning core values and communicating the deeper purpose behind the work is imperative.

There is nothing worse than defining and talking about core values, yet not demonstrating them.

Leaders are the primary driver of core values, so they must embody them correctly.

If I told you it’s easy to empower others, I would be lying.

Most people, myself included, have a difficult time giving up control.

However, if you want to act and behave like the best leaders, empowering others is precisely what you need to do.

*John Eades is the Chief Executive of LearnLoft a leadership development company. He can be contacted at johneades.com.

This article first appeared at johneades.com.

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