There are excuses . . . and then there are reasons. When it comes to helping a leader to delegate more frequently and effectively, both may come in to play. We’ll look at excuses first, then go into some of the more complex causes of failure to delegate.
Traditionally there have been three primary excuses that leaders have used to explain the failure to delegate, all of which can easily be dismissed in single paragraphs:
- “They won’t do it as well as I would.”
- “It will take more time to manage it, so I’m better off doing it myself.”
- “My people are overloaded already, so why give them more work?”
“They won’t do it as well as I would.”
While that may be true sometimes, it’s just as likely that they will do it better! A person taking on a new task brings new perspectives to the work. They’re not stuck in the old paradigm or ways of doing things. In most cases, greater responsibility is a positive motivator that leads people to put more effort, energy and care into their work. If a leader is crystal clear about the desired outcome and stays in touch through regular (but not excessive) check-ins, this obstacle will likely prove to be more myth than truth.
“It will take more time to manage it, so I’m better off doing it myself.”
In the short run, perhaps. But when you consider that each task a leader chooses not to delegate is another task that won’t be subtracted from their workload, the person most likely to suffer is the leader. Failing to delegate compromises leader effectiveness and restrains leadership capacity.
“My people are overloaded already, so why give them more work?”
There are times when people feel overloaded because they have too much work, but it is also true that complaints about “overload” are really complaints about “I’m doing too much work that I don’t like to do.” When a job allows a person to fully utilize their talents, it usually winds up being fun and exciting for them—not an extra burden.
These excuses often mask deeper causes. The real reasons leaders don’t delegate present more of a challenge:
- Organizational Culture: The leader works in a control-driven organization that expects leaders to be hands-on and hands-in. Leaders in such organizations who are not aware of every little detail of every trivial activity that goes on in their bailiwick can be subject to public humiliation. The need to CYA trumps the responsibility to delegate and empower people.
- Ball Hog Syndrome: The leader is a control freak or has a hero complex that drives them to get in there and do it all. We call them “ball hogs” in basketball.
- Personal Insecurity: The leader is insecure and feels threatened by the potential of his or her direct reports.
An individual leader will have a very difficult time changing an organizational culture of top-down control, so the choice a leader faces if he or she firmly believes in delegation is to either leave or “delegate by stealth.” To accomplish the stealth strategy successfully, the leader needs to have great relationships with his/her direct reports to be able to say, “Look. We work in a political organization where I have to cover my behind from time to time. This means I may ask you for more details about what you’re doing than you or I would like. I want you to know that this is not a trust issue, I’m just engaging in classic CYA.” This is not an optimum strategy, but can buy a leader some time to find another job while still leading in accordance with his/her values.
A ball hog is a more difficult problem. I don’t believe a ball hog can be helped through traditional coaching; the tendency to want to be the center of attention is too ingrained. I also believe that having the ball hog’s boss take the ball hog to the woodshed is counter-productive because it will simply reaffirm the ball hog’s belief in power and control. The only way a ball hog will change is by experiencing a failure so complete that he or she will be forced to re-examine and re-construct the self. That’s when you bring in the coach, because now he or she will need and appreciate the guidance.
The personally insecure leader can be helped through professional coaching. It has to be professional coaching so that the leader can explore causes of insecurity in a confidential setting. While there are leaders who are excellent coaches, personal insecurity is a difficult topic to discuss with anyone at work, but especially difficult to discuss with the person who establishes the expectations you’re supposed to meet. A professional has no position power and is much more likely to have the training and education in psychology and human communication needed to help the insecure leader overcome his or her fears of letting go.