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“Do you want me to change out your alternator, or fix your car?!” I can still hear my mechanic's words from 30 years ago, and although at the time it was not clear to me, the simple exchange that followed would become central to one of the most profound leadership lessons I have ever learned, and one that I have used many times to center myself and calibrate others on the power of effective delegation.
In those days, I drove a beater, and with the exception of oil changes, which were performed by yours truly, all other maintenance was done on a breakdown basis. On this particular occasion, my car wouldn’t start and I had it towed to the shade tree mechanic who usually baled me out at a reasonable price. I had done some preliminary troubleshooting and, not recognizing that I knew just enough to be dangerous, I was sure the problem was with the alternator. The mechanic tried to explain to me that I had a different problem that was going to cost more, but I was persistent. That is when he looked me straight in the eye and popped his question.
In hindsight, it's clear that he had been there before when someone asked him to fix their car and insisted on how he should go about doing it and then blamed him when it didn’t work. This guy was no dummy and he wasn’t going to let me get away with what I was trying to do. He was bound to force me to choose to either delegate the methods, or the outcome, and he was going to make sure that I would be accountable for the outcome if I chose to prescribe the method.
The truth is that when all of this was going on, I was pretty frustrated that he wouldn’t just do what I asked him to do. I pieced it together and extracted leadership lessons out of it a little later as I graduated from college and started working in a manufacturing plant where I had several poor souls, who had been there for years, reporting to me and having to endure my trial and error approach to learning to lead them.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the people who reported to me knew so much more about their craft than I did. I learned to appreciate the lesson I had learned from my mechanic even more as it provided a solid foundation for how we would work together. The greatest thing I had going for me was my willingness to empower them to do what they did best and get out of their way. I have to admit it took me a while to get the hang of the practical application of this, but I am certainly grateful for my head start.
Although the basic theory of effective delegation is fairly simple, there are far too many people in the workforce today who have simply been reduced to gofers because their bosses are more interested in prescribing their methods rather than practicing what Stephen Covey refers to as Stewardship Delegation in his best selling book and course, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Benefits of Effective Delegation:
There are multiple benefits to delegation if it is done properly:
1. It generates alignment on the expected outcome.
2. It establishes the boundaries within which the delagatee can operate.
3. It defines the resources the delegatee can tap into.
4. It clarifies the method by which results will be measured.
5. It spells out the positive and negative consequences.
Effective delegation frees up the delegator to focus on things that he/she is uniquely qualified to work on, and it gives the delagatee the freedom to take license to get the job done the best way he/she can, within the agreed upon boundaries. It also elevates the relationship between the delegatee and delegator beyond micro-management and creates true stewards and owners in the organization.
The ultimate benefit of mastering the art of effective delegation is that it makes an opportunity available in the delegatee’s world that would cause them to stretch and grow, and it expands the influence or impact of the delegator beyond what he/she could accomplish alone.
What ineffective delegation looks like:
The two extremes of ineffective delegation, both of which often lead to unfavorable results and loss of credibility, are as follows:
1. Abdication – This happens when either the wrong thing is delegated or the right thing is delegated the wrong way. The former involves the boss dumping something that he/she should personally lead on someone else and remains out of touch. The latter involves the boss delegating something he/she cares about but doesn't take enough care to make sure the delegatee is set up for success.
2. Micro-management – This happens when the boss is too involved in every detail and does not give the delegatee room to exercise any judgment or creativity. The methods are prescribed along the way, too frequently and/or in too much detail which leads to frustration for both parties involved.
What happens when we don’t get it right:
When we experience ineffective delegation methods, one of two things can happen:
1. We stop delegating because we become convinced that it takes less time to do it ourselves or that it wouldn’t be done right unless we did it ourselves; or
2. We keep using our ineffective gofer delegation methods and reduce the passionate and talented people in our organizations into gofers whose view of their jobs is to do what we tell them to do, and this ultimately robs us of utilizing the full extent of their talent and denies them of the opportunity to grow and develop.
I recognize that I am most likely not telling you anything you don’t know, but I hope that this serves as a reminder and a nudge for you to examine just how effective you have been at delegating. Are you asking your people to fix the car and making sure they know the desired timeline, resources, measurement methods, and other guidelines, or are you asking them to change out the alternator and blaming them when the car is not fixed?
Effective delegation is a key process by which leaders can expand their influence, impact, and cause their team members to grow and develop while they maximize their contributions to the team. When we delegate a certain outcome and micro-manage the methods, we are in fact taking the responsibility for the outcome away from the delegatee. This leaves our team members either frustrated because they cannot freely express the full extent of their talent and ideas in service of the desired outcome, or resigned to the fact that they are only there to follow our orders and settle for utilizing a fraction of the skills and ideas they bring to the team.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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