How to master the art of delegation

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Dvery elegant is the management six-pack: widely desired and harder to achieve as you get older. In theory, entrusting appropriate decisions to people lower down the corporate ladder means greater satisfaction at all levels. Bosses have more time to focus on the issues that really deserve their attention. Middle managers and workers enjoy a greater sense of autonomy. And the organization benefits from faster decision-making from people who are better informed on the topic at hand. However, in practice, delegation is a minefield.

Some bosses don't even try to delegate. They may distrust people below them or crave control. Their professional success may simply have convinced them of their own genius. But there are also gentler explanations. Startup founders are conditioned to do everything, at least until companies reach a certain size. Many managers take on more work than they should in order to protect their teams from overload.

Other managers delegate but they do it for the wrong reasons. Studies suggest that people are likely to back down from decisions when the choices are difficult, when the consequences affect others, and when they want to avoid being blamed for a bad outcome. In a 2016 paper by Mary Steffel of Northeastern University and her co-authors, volunteers were told they had to reserve hotel rooms at a conference, either for their own use or that of their boss, and they were asked if they wanted to make a reservation. the rooms themselves or delegate the task to an office manager. When they were choosing their boss and hotels were difficult, people were more likely to give the job to the hapless office manager.

A new study, by Victor Maas and Bei Shi of Amsterdam Business School, reaffirms this bleak picture of human motivation. It found that people were more likely to assign work to subordinates when the performance goals for that particular task were demanding; they were much happier keeping tasks whose goals were easier to achieve. If a habitual micromanager unexpectedly asks you to take the lead on something, in other words, run for the hills.

The vast majority of managers fall into a grayer area. They may have good intentions and leave decisions to others, but they still have difficulty doing so. What if you trust your team members, but then discover that you violently dislike the choices they make? What happens if you want to hand over certain decisions but know your own bosses will hold you personally responsible? These problems can easily result in “false tonomy” – a version of perfunctory delegation in which managers don't actually leave their teams to take care of things or where subordinates use their freedom only to guess what the boss would want .

One way to address these issues is to use an explicit decision-making framework that attempts to make clear who should pay what. These frames are not perfect. Project managers often use what is called the RACI model. Its first two letters distinguish those who are “responsible” from those who are “responsible”, a distinction that normal people may find “confusing” and “incomprehensible”. Other clearer frames are available. They have catchy names like DACI, TO DARE And OF: You may be choosing a cloud computing provider, but it feels a bit like you're in the special forces.

In addition to determining who does what, it is useful to be able to analyze what types of decisions can or cannot be delegated. Before Jeff Bezos started hanging out in spacesuits and doing laughable photo shoots Vogue, he liked to articulate his management philosophy in annual letters to Amazon shareholders. In 2015, he made a useful distinction between Type 1 decisions (“one-way doors”) which are important and irreversible, and Type 2 decisions (“two-way doors”) which can be reversed if not not come true. Type 1 decisions justify slow deliberative processes; Type 2 decisions should be made quickly by smaller groups. Having a theory of decisions improves choices about what to delegate and reduces the risk of regret.

Delegating well also requires a lot of judgment. Delegation is not all or nothing. A detached boss can be as demotivating as a micromanager; one must stay informed of decisions and, on occasion, overturn them. But recording at the right pace and letting people make decisions you wouldn't make yourself requires restraint and discipline. Just like those abs.

Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist:
Why Monday is the most misunderstood day (December 7)
Generative AI generates difficult choices for managers (November 27)
How not to motivate your employees (November 20)

Also: How Bartleby Column got its name

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