Delegate and Let Go

By Rob Keefer

As scary and as difficult as it may be to delegate and let go, it’s the only route to achieving the type of harmony we all seek at work. Once you master this skill, perhaps, like Andrew Carnegie, delegation can become the defining element of your career.

Plenty of words have been written and spoken to managers and executives about the importance of delegation. Andrew Carnegie wanted his thoughts on the matter to stand the test of time. The wealthy industrialist, in his day one of the world’s richest men and most generous philanthropists, directed that the epitaph on his gravestone read as follows:

Here lies a man who knew how to enlist in his service better men than himself.

And yet, despite Carnegie leaving this extraordinary lesson for generations of business leaders, delegation remains a skill that many find hard to master -- and not necessarily for lack of trying. Delegation relies on an organization having a clearly defined strategy so that managers can make good choices about priorities for themselves and their teams. It also demands a level of self-awareness and self-confidence that takes time, wisdom, and experience to develop.

Once you learn how to delegate it, and let it go, your chances of success dramatically increase. A 2014 Gallup study of CEOs on the Inc. 500 List found that those who delegated well were able to deliver higher revenue and returns than those who tried to do it all themselves. So, not only does good delegation improve your chance of success and enhance your experience of work, but it also puts more money in your pocket.

What keeps the manager from letting go?

At some level, most managers understand that trying to do everything oneself is unsustainable; leading to a path of overload and staff dissent. But what does good delegation look like, and why is it so hard? What keeps managers from letting go?

Part of the answer lies in what happens to people when they cross into management. Responsibilities are clear when you are out on the front lines: build this product, manage these accounts, recruit these new workers, write these press releases. The job of a manager, to lead, is less easily defined. Making the transition from doing into delegating can be painful. Timothy Firnstahl, who founded a chain of restaurants in Seattle in the 1980s, went so far as to say it “tested his faith in humanity.”

“It’s one thing to hear or read about how the chief executive’s role changes as he or she delegates,” Firnstahl writes in a 1986 Harvard Business Review article, “but it’s another thing to experience it. I found living through it to be awful.” He cites problems with standing by and watching others make mistakes as one of the most significant challenges to embracing delegation. He also laments seeing others succeed in his former jobs in a way that he couldn’t, as well as the stress of learning a new way of operating.

Sometimes the challenges have nothing to do with transitions. People delegate but fail to let go for many reasons. Maybe they lack trust in an employee. Perhaps they’ve made hires that are poor fits. Maybe their organization has a controlling culture.

Whichever the case, overcoming the obstacles to good delegation can be freeing -- for you, your employees, and your organization.

Effects of a micromanager

But what about a situation where someone does delegate -- but cannot let go? The consequences of this can be severe for the organization’s objectives and for the desire of employees to grow and develop long-term.

Micromanagers deny employees the chance to learn and grow. If an employee expects their work to be deemed wrong, or routinely taken over by the boss, they may stop being enterprising and start doing just the minimum necessary. Why vest yourself if you think you’ll always be wrong?

This micromanagement tendency also works against managers themselves. Employees spend their time trying to anticipate the “right” answer and not trigger the do-over. This often results in employees being on the defensive rather than solving problems and significantly blunts the manager’s potential influence to lead a unified, cohesive team. Micromanaging can also discourage employees, sending them in search of new jobs, where they are trusted with the autonomy to contribute.

Tips for effective delegation

The struggle to delegate is real. It’s also a symptom that runs counter to the notion of embracing your complexity. So it’s important to seek solutions. Here are some tips that can make it easier to delegate -- and let it go.

  • Adopt the right mindset. Not everything is subject to delegation. As a manager, you wouldn’t ask a subordinate to write performance evaluations, for instance. Understand what discrete projects or processes are taking up most of your time and carve those out, so you can focus on the things your boss wants you to focus on.
  • Commit to their success. Yes, it takes time and energy to explain a project and how you want it completed. But think of that time and energy as an investment both in your work-life balance and in the organization's success. The clearer you make the task, the more likely it is it will be done successfully, again and again. Give deadlines and expectations.
  • Check-in along the way. The challenge here is not to sow seeds of doubt in an employee’s ability. You simply want to know what obstacles they are facing so you can clear them away. Checking-in allows you to make course corrections along the way and build an employee’s confidence by letting them know they are on the right track.
  • Sing their praises. Delegating the work means giving credit to the right people for a successful outcome. Their success, in the end, will reflect well on you for being a good delegator.

As scary and as difficult as it may be to let things go, it’s the only route to achieving the type of harmony we all seek at work. Overcoming the obstacles to good delegation can be freeing -- for you, your employees, and your organization. And then, maybe someday, like Andrew Carnegie, delegation can become the defining element of your career.

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