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8 Ways Leaders Delegate Successfully

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Deborah Grayson Riegel for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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In their book, Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Charles O’Reilly claim that there is mounting evidence that delegating more responsibility for decision making increases productivity, morale, and commitment, all of which impact company culture. A 2015 Gallup study of the entrepreneurial talents of 143 CEOs on the Inc. 500 list showed that companies run by executives who effectively delegate authority grow faster, generate more revenue, and create more jobs.

According to John C. Maxwell, author of Developing the Leaders Around You, “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”

Yet, for many leaders, delegating feels like something they know they should do, but don’t do. And the roadblock often begins at the top. Senior leaders often struggle with knowing what they can delegate that would actually feel helpful to them, or how to delegate responsibility and not just tasks, or what responsibilities could serve as a learning and growth opportunity for others below them. In addition, senior executives (like others in the organization) may not have had role models along the way to show them how to delegate successfully.  And, of course, there’s a perceived reputational risk. Will delegating make them look like they don’t know their stuff, or like they’re slacking off themselves?

When the senior leaders of an organization can’t or won’t delegate, the culture suffers. In his book, The Art of Being Unreasonable, author, philanthropist, and billionaire CEO Eli Broad writes, “The inability to delegate is one of the biggest problems I see with managers at all levels.

Before leaders can successfully and effectively delegate, they need to understand their own resistance. In Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggest that leaders state their goal and then describe the behaviors that are stalling their efforts. For instance, a senior sales leader might want to delegate follow-up calls to big customers to his sales team, but realizes that he hasn’t updated his notes in the CRM database, or he might simply be in the habit of making the follow-up calls himself before members of the team can get to them.

Kegan and Lahey then suggest that leaders examine these behaviors and ask themselves how they’d feel if they did the opposite. What if updating the CRM database in a timely manner meant pushing off other, more important activities? What if not calling customers meant that they felt ignored or disrespected, and they took their business elsewhere? These concerns activate the “emotional immune system,” which tries to ward off feelings of fear, overwhelm, loss of control, and disappointment. For the senior leader to start delegating and stick with it, he needs to address these feelings, challenge his own assumptions about “what if,” and try small, low-risk delegation experiments to see whether his assumptions are rooted in the truth or in his desire for safety. In addition, team members to whom tasks are delegated should undertake a similar process in order to identify their concerns and challenge their own assumptions about what might happen if they take on new tasks, roles, and responsibilities.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.


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