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Delegating responsibilities appropriately

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Managers and supervisors must, at least occasionally, delegate some tasks, roles, and responsibilities to their employees. That is, delegation enables these managers and supervisors to fulfill their extensive goals and duties. In addition, delegation enhances the knowledge, skills, experience, and insight of employees, ultimately facilitating growth and productivity. Finally, managers and supervisors do not necessarily demonstrate the expertise, temperament, or character to complete some of their tasks optimally, and some other employees, instead, might be more effective in these roles.

Nevertheless, many managers and supervisor are reluctant to delegate any of their roles and responsibilities, despite acknowledging these benefits. They feel uneasy relinquishing control.

Advice from coaches, mentors, or supervisors

Commitment to delegate

Step 1. Some managers feel ambivalent about whether or not they should delegate responsibilities to other individuals.Coaches, mentors, and supervisors should encourage these individuals to reflect upon two or three previous occasions in which they successfully delegated their responsibilities to someone else. Perhaps, during school, at a social club, or in a previous job, these individuals had delegated a phase of a project-and had initially experienced trepidation but ultimately felt vindicated.

After individuals reflect upon several occasions in which they pursued some goal, such as attempted to delegate some role to an employee, they experience a mounting sense of commitment towards this endeavor. That is, these memories seem to highlight their previous commitment towards this goal, which in turn augments their ongoing commitment (Minjung & Fishbach, 2008).

Perceived benefits of delegation

Step 2. Coaches, mentors, and supervisors should also invite these individuals to unearth two or three benefits that delegation affords. Specifically, they should be asked "Can you think of two or three reasons why delegating some of these tasks might be beneficial?"Most individuals can readily delineate two or three benefits of delegating responsibilities. According to an established heuristic, individuals estimate the number of benefits from the ease with which two or three merits can be retrieved (e.g., see Haddock, 2002 & Pahl & Eiser, 2007). Hence, in this instance, individuals will assume that delegation must afford many other benefits as well, which could reinforce their commitment.

Communication of this commitment to delegate

Step 3. Once the intention to delegate responsibilities is established, coaches, mentors, and supervisors should encourage these managers to convey this commitment to relevant individuals. They might, for example, inform an executive in their department of their need to delegate some of the responsibilities.

In particular, they should concede they have not acquired the expertise and skills themselves, or have not developed the fortitude and attributes, to complete the task themselves. They might disclose to a customer "My accounting ability is quite limited", before indicating "I will need to delegate some of these tasks to someone who has developed some unique skills in this domain, but could also benefit from additional experience".

The communication of this commitment to delegate provides some key benefits. First, the individuals are more likely to fulfill the intention to delegate. That is, intentions that are not articulated aloud are more likely to be neglected (Cooke & Sheeran, 2004).Second, this information ensures that other stakeholders-customers, executives, and supplies-for example, will not be too alarmed if some minor complications arise. Third, after individuals concede their own limitations, these deficiencies seem less salient and prominent in their minds, which confers a sense of security, and diminishes the anxiety that delegation can evoke (Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich,2005& Wegner, 1994).

Selecting which tasks to delegate

Clarifying personal goals and qualities

Step 1. Individuals should record all of their duties and obligations--all the tasks and activities they need to complete within the next month or so. Next, individuals should record their hopes, values aspirations, and objectives they would like to achieve in the more distant future, perhaps five to ten years from now. For example, a suburban lawyer might, in the future, yearn to work as a diplomat, forging relationships with formerly rogue states to stem the tide of injustice.

When individuals shift their attention from the immediate possibilities to their future aspirations, they become less sensitive to the potential complications, drawbacks, or shortfalls that might ensue (Higgins, 1997, 2000, 2005). They tend to pursue courses of action that could foster improvements or expedite achievements, willing to embrace the problems and difficulties that such changes could elicit (see Regulatory focus theory).As a consequence, these individuals will be sensitive to the merits of delegation--the potential decrease in their workload and the likely progress in their staff--but not to the possible difficulties and complications.

Step 2. Individuals should reflect upon how their ongoing tasks and activities could facilitate these future aspirations and purposes. That is, individuals should consider the broader meaning and purpose of their more immediate duties and obligations. Their duty to provide legal services to local council, for example, could expedite their attempt to participate in the political sphere, ultimately improving their credibility as a diplomat.

When individuals feel their roles and responsibilities align with a broader purpose or meaning, they experience a genuine, and often profound, sense of security. According to a burgeoning paradigm, called Terror management theory, this sense of connection with an enduring cause, purpose, or movement instills a feeling of permanence rather than transience--a feeling that erodes the incessant vulnerability to criticisms and other threats (see Cox, Arndt, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Abdollahi, & Solomon, 2008). This profound sense of security enables individuals to withstand the difficulties that delegation can provoke, such as unanticipated errors and concomitant disapproval from stakeholders.

Step 3. Individuals should identify two or three of their strengths, skills, or qualities that could facilitate their progress on these aspirational goals and objectives. This exercise, as scientific studies corroborate, boost the resilience of individuals, increasing their capacity to withstand the complications of delegation (see Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 2006).

Step 4. Individuals should identify an influential figure in their life--a mentor, supervisor, or executive--who recognizes their skills and qualities, offering unwavering support, assistance, and praise. Individuals should, whenever feasible, contact this person, seeking advice on how to prevent or resolve the problems that delegation might trigger. Both actual or imagined conversations with a person who is invariably supportive, not judgmental, has also been demonstrated to foster resilience and instill an enduring sense of security.

After individuals reflect upon their core values and aspirations--as well as experience a profound sense of security--their capacity to decide which activities they should complete themselves improves. In this state, individuals can more readily select tasks that align their core values, inclinations, qualities, and character (see Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005). They can ascertain which tasks demand capacities that diverge from their skills, attributes, interests, or preferences and, thus, could be delegated.

Step 5. Hence, soon after individuals have uncovered their aspirations, identified their strengths, and contacted a trusted manager or mentor, they should decide which of their tasks and duties they would like to delegate rather than to complete themselves. Specifically, they should scan their list of tasks, reflecting upon the extent to which they perceive each activity as aligned to their interests, values, and preferences. Next, they should shift their attention to another activity for several minutes, perhaps reading an article, for example, that is interesting and germane to their role. Finally, they should trust their intuition and rank all of their tasks, arranging these activities from the duties they are most inclined to complete themselves to the duties they are most inclined to delegate.

When individuals trust their intuition, rather than apply some formal procedure, formula, or algorithm, their choices tend to be more appropriate (see Dijksterhuis & Nordgren 2006). Intuitive judgments are especially suitable when a vast gamut of factors, considerations, and complications could affect the consequences of their decision (see Unconscious thinking theory).

Step 6. Individuals should identify their characteristics or tendencies, such as their attention to detail or their experience in retain, that have contributed to many of their achievements, accomplishments, reputation, or strengths. Next, individuals should reflect upon some of the potential drawbacks of these characteristics. Perhaps their attention to detail, for example, could impair their ability to formulate a strategic vision of the future. Perhaps their years of experience in the retail sector has diminished their exposure to other industries, such as the government sector--a problem for budding diplomats, for instance.

After individuals recognize that many of their strengths and limitations are related to overlapping tendencies, and thus are intimately connected, their self esteem tends to become more stable rather than erratic (Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007 & see Compartmentalization model of self structure). This stability attenuates their sensitivity to criticism (see Kernis, 2003), instilling the confidence that is needed to recognize the strengths and abilities of other individuals.

Step 7. Individuals should identify a set of employees to whom they could delegate some of their tasks and responsibilities. First, these individuals could identify employees who might demonstrate skills and qualities that offset their own shortcomings and limitations. Second, these individuals could identify employees who often express a motivation to extend their skills, expertise, and experience.

Conversations with employees to decide which tasks to delegate.

Step 1. Individuals should convene a meeting with each of these employees in sequence. The capacity of employees to modify their temperament, character, and intelligence, and overcome limitations that had previously seemed entrenched, should be reinforced. The individuals who would like to delegate some of their responsibilities, hereafter called the managers, could maintain "I've seen some employees acquire attributes I thought they could not possibly develop".

When employees assume their temperament, character, and intelligence are not fixed--but can be cultivated with time, effort, and practice--they are more receptive to learning and development, embracing opportunities to develop their skills and insight (Dweck,Chui, & Hong, 1995 & Maurer, Mitchell, & Barbeite, 2002). They conceptualize challenging roles as an opportunity to evolve, not as a potential threat to their pride and reputation. Hence, they can readily withstand the difficulties that such opportunities could present (see Implicit theories of malleability).

Step 2. The managers should encourage these employee to articulate the qualities and attributes they would like to develop: perhaps their leadership skills or their resilience to criticism. Managers could ask "Which qualities and attributes might you need to develop to ensure you can pursue your own goals and aspirations?" This discussion underscores the malleability of their qualities, while enabling their managers to delegate the tasks that align with their preferences.

Step 3. After conversing with this set of employees, managers should then decide to whom they might delegate the various responsibilities. Apart from ensuring these tasks are congruent with needs and aspirations of employees, managers need to consider a few other key factors. They should, for example, ensure the same employees are not always assigned tasks that are notoriously repetitive, monotonous, and tedious. They should also ensure these employees are not overwhelmed with too many duties and responsibilities already.

Conveying their objectives, expectations, and constraints

Granting unfettered autonomy and unequivocal constraints

Step 1. Managers, when assigning tasks to employees, should first convey the objectives and purpose of this activity. In particular, they need to justify the significance of this task, depicting a rich narrative to convey the historical antecedents of this objective. That is, they should recount the conversations or events that culminated in the need to undertake this activity. They might, for example, highlight that "Last month, one of our managers was accused of bullying and the organization was sued. So, we need to implement a program that prevents bullying and demonstrates that we are tackling this issue--to preclude future liabilities".

Detailed justifications of an objective ensure this purpose will be pursued, even under stressful conditions. Values and objectives that are not justified rationally and systematically tend to be relinquished when the demands escalate (Karremans, 2007). The provision of detailed information has also been shown to instill a feeling of ownership (O'Driscol, Pierce, & Coghlan, 2006). That is, individuals are more inclined to experience this sense of ownership, which augments their commitment, towards endeavors they understand comprehensively.

Step 2. After these objectives are conveyed and justified, managers must communicate, clearly and unequivocally, the constraints that employees must negotiate and accommodate. That is, managers must first record on paper, and communicate verbally, limitations in the time and resources that are available. They should then stipulate, also on paper and in person, any other boundaries and regulations that need to be respected. Finally, they should grant the employees an opportunity to refine the objectives and clarify the constraints.

However, apart from these constraints, employees should be granted unfettered autonomy. They should be informed "Apart from these limits, you can choose any means or approach to fulfill this objective. You might even choose to seek advice from someone else or trust your own intuition".

That is, employees should be granted no choice on some decisions, such as timelines perhaps, but unqualified choice on other decisions. Regrettably, managers often grant employees autonomy, but then steer these individuals to a specific course of action. They might maintain that "You can choose either of these two roles", but then add "But, I would prefer you to choose the second role".

These qualified choices tend to curb the engagement and motivation of individuals, promoting exhaustion instead. That is, the autonomy activates specific inclinations, such as the yearning to engage in one role. The qualification, however, often compels individuals suppress these powerful inclinations, which demands effort and generates exhaustion. No choice is less likely to culminate in exhaustion than is a qualified choice.

Step 3. After communicating the objectives and constraints, managers should acknowledge the potential feelings and emotions these employees might experience. Managers could concede "I know this task can seem stressful and unclear". Then, managers should relate the endeavor to the aspirations and values of the employees, with phrases like "But, I think this task might help you fulfill your goal to be involved in international diplomacy and social justice."

Acknowledging the feelings of another person, as well as relating their activities to more meaningful aspirations, have been shown to promote a sense of engagement and satisfaction (see Ryan & Deci, 2000). If these feelings are not acknowledged, or if these tasks are unrelated to meaningful aspirations, individuals experience a sense of obligation--a feeling that compromises their engagement (see Self determination theory).

Step 4. Managers should announce publicly the roles that various employees were assigned. This announcement affirms the authority these employees have been granted and thus upholds their autonomy.

Feedback and accountability

After assigning these tasks, managers need to ensure the roles and responsibilities they have delegated are indeed fulfilled--the intended goals have been achieved, the deadlines have been satisfied, and any constraints have been accommodated. Managers cannot abrogate their responsibilities altogether. To fulfill this objective, managers must follow two principles.

First, managers need to instill a profound, enduring, and authentic sense of security in employees. When individuals experience this security, any anxieties they experience dissipate rapidly and seamlessly. When anxiety subsides, a circuit in the brain, called extension memory (Kuhl, 2000), is activated . This system enhances the capacity of employees to pursue a strategy or orientation that optimizes performance (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005), fulfills their core values (e.g., (Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005), and fosters engagement and motivation. In other words, employees are more inclined to act optimally when they feel genuinely secure.

Second, managers need to ensure that employees are exposed to a diversity of insights and experiences. This exposure to many novel experiences can facilitate the efficacy of extension memory (cf., Kuhl, Kazen, & Koole, 2006).

Encouraging employees to concede obstacles.

Step 1. Managers should encourage employees to concede some of their concerns and obstacles. To facilitate this discussion, managers should first highlight that individuals learn more effectively after they commit errors.

Specifically, Heimbeck, Frese, Sonnentag, and Keith (2003) as well as Bell and Kozlowski (2008), have shown that committing errors can facilitate learning. In contrast, when individuals learn some task, they often receive definitive instructions that specify how to complete various activities. These instructions minimize the incidence of errors and have been shown to disrupt learning. Errors encourage individuals to explore more tactics and thus develop a broader range of skills and insights. Furthermore, individuals who commit errors often become more engrossed in the activity, which further boosts learning.

Nevertheless, errors can sometimes provoke anxiety, which impedes concentration. This anxiety subsides, however, when individuals are explicitly encouraged to commit errors--or feel more motivated to cultivate, not merely demonstrate, their expertise.

Step 2. Managers should then highlight that individuals who genuinely feel, even if they explicitly deny, they are unworthy and useless (Jordan, Whitfield,& Zeigler-Hill, 2007) are more defensive and thus unsuitable as leaders (e.g., Jordan, Spencer, Zanna, Hoshino-Browne,& Correll, 2003). Next, managers should ask employees to concede some of the difficulties and concerns they have experienced.

Concerns, doubts, and obstacles that are conceded are less likely to be suppressed. Suppressed concerns and doubts tend to amplify over time, undermining confidence, and denting security (Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich, 2005& Wegner, Broome, & Blumberg, 1997) .

Related objectives

For more information on how to foster security and motivation, see also articles on:


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Last Update: 5/15/2016