Becoming an effective leader

2.2 - Review own ability to motivate, delegate and empower others

Ensuring Understanding

Shared understanding is important because misunderstanding is so expensive! How expensive is it? Take your hourly wages or salary times the number of hours you spent preparing for the delegation meeting. Then add the value of the time both you and the delegatee spend in the meeting. Then, once miscommunication causes problems, add in the value of the time spent correcting them. To that sum, add a large portion of resentment, frustration, confusion, disappointment—all of those emotions that drain an organization of its vitality and productivity.

You can avoid this waste of time and money by taking the time now to be sure you and your delegatee understand each other.

One of the best ways to do this is to ask for feedback, or reactions from your delegatee and to actively listen to her or his responses. As you speak with your delegatee, keep in mind that feedback can take many forms. It may be nonverbal, relying on facial expression or body language. Or it may be verbal, taking the form of a comment or question.


Responding to Feedback

Your goal in your delegation meetings is to encourage employees to express themselves openly, ask questions when they don’t understand, and express concerns when they think they will  have difficulty completing a task. Some employees will feel comfortable providing you with this feedback with little prompting. Others may be more reluctant to ask questions or express concerns. Perhaps they are afraid of appearing “stupid”  in front of the boss, or perhaps they do not want to be perceived as having a negative attitude.



As the previous exercise suggests, people can express agreement, confusion, or disagreement in a variety of ways that do not involve words at all. As you talk with your employees, look for facial expressions and body language that express confusion, hesitancy, or disagreement. These could include the following:

◆      Frowning

◆      Head shaking

◆      Lack of eye contact

◆      Sitting with arms folded across the chest

◆      Nervous laughter

◆      Hesitancy to answer


You should also listen for noncommital statements like “I guess so” or “If you think so.”

If you pick up signs that a delegatee seems confused or hesitant, don’t ignore them or try to gloss over them. Remember, the delegatee must fully understand and accept the assignment in order for the delegation to succeed. A misunderstanding now could mean failure later. Ask questions, and encourage your delegatee to provide you with honest feedback.


As you ask your questions, don’t try to engineer the response  you want from the delegatee. Avoid questions like “You don’t think you’ll have any problems, do you?” or “I think this will be right up your alley, don’t you?” or “You’re not afraid of a little extra work, are you?” Your delegatee will certainly see these “helpful” questions for what they are—loaded and manipulative.


Instead of asking leading questions like these, try to find out what your delegatee really thinks. Ask open-ended questions— questions that require more than a yes-or-no-answer—and engage in a candid dialogue about your delegatee’s concerns.




Common Concerns

Delegatees may express a variety of concerns during the delegation meeting. Three common areas of concern are:

◆      Confusion regarding the task.

◆      Lack of experience.

◆      Disagreement with the assignment.

Here are some ways that delegators can respond to each.


Resolving Confusion

■        “So that’s that task as I see it,” Fred said to his employee Danielle. “Got any questions?”


“Uh, no, I guess not,” Danielle said hesitantly, but her frown told Fred she really didn’t understand.


When faced with a confused look, delegators often ask, “Did you have a question?” Or they’ll finish what they think is a tidy explanation with, “Got any questions?” But many delegatees are reluctant to admit that they don’t understand, so they just say no.


One way to be sure a delegatee understands an assignment is to ask that person to paraphrase what you’ve just said. When you make this type of request, be sure to do it in a supportive way rather than making it seem like a test:

■        “Just to be sure we’re on the same page, let’s review what you’re going to be doing on the project. What’s your understanding of the first step?”

■        “Let’s go over the process one more time just to be sure I explained it thoroughly. How would you begin?”


Going over the assignment in this way gives the delegator and the delegatee the chance to engage in further dialogue without forcing the delegatee to openly state, “I don’t understand.”



Some delegatees worry that they don’t have the experience or expertise to do the job well. When they express these concerns, some delegators respond by blurting out something like, “Oh, don’t worry—if I can do this, anyone can!” This is a mistake for several reasons:

◆      It implies that the task is trivial—certainly too trivial to worry about.

◆      It implies that the delegator really doesn’t want to address any fears the delegatee might have.

◆      It implies that the delegator is unskilled, clumsy, or inadequate in some way.

◆      It implies that the delegatee is just as inept as the delegator!

If your delegatee doubts his or her ability to do the task, return

to the reasons you believe she or he can do it and talk about  5       

training possibilities. You can describe some of your own experiences when you first did the task:

■        “You know, I was pretty worried the first time I did this job, too. But I found that if I took it one step at a time, it wasn’t nearly so intimidating.”

■        “After the first couple of times I did this job, I found I was really improving my speed. So don’t worry if it’s a stretch at first—it’s supposed to be. And I won’t expect you to do it as fast as I do it until January.”


■        “I’ll be here if you get stuck—not to take the job back, but to explore options with you.”



Handling Disagreements

When you get subtle signs that your delegatee disagrees with what you’re saying or doesn’t want the assignment, don’t ignore the signals! You may be tempted to hope that the delegatee will come to accept the assignment over time, but sweeping problems under the rug now means failure later. Besides, by encouraging your delegatee to be honest, you may discover that the objections are based in a simple misunderstanding that you can easily clarify.


To help the delegatee be open, tell him or her what you’re observing and encourage a response. Here are some examples:

■        “Nick, you looked uncomfortable when I said you’d be working with Sid. How do you feel about that aspect of the job?”

■        “What’s wrong, Jesse? From the way you’re rolling your eyes, I know that something is! Tell me about it.”

■        “When I said I’d like to approve your plan, Carlos, you seemed

.. . well, like maybe I was being overcautious. What’s your opinion? Maybe you’ve had more experience with this kind of project than I thought.”

■        “Vic, you seemed a little upset when I suggested a deadline of June 12th. What else do you have going on?”

■        “What about your budgetary authority, Sam? Did I detect a fleeting look of ‘This’ll never work?!’ across your face? What concerns do you have about it?”

■        “Ann, you looked worried when I recommended the ‘zero defects’ goal. Am I right? If so, let’s talk about it—what are your expectations?”


With your encouragement, your delegatee may be quite straightforward. However, don’t assume all is well if a delegatee has voiced one concern and you’ve answered it. Always check again by saying something like:

■        “What other concerns (or questions) do you have?”


■        “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”


Once your delegatee decides to be honest with you, reinforce that candor by listening carefully without interrupting or getting defensive. Then it’s your turn to be honest in the way you negotiate and resolve problems with your delegatee.


Determining Level of Authority

All of the items on the Delegation Issues worksheet are important, but #8 is perhaps the most important—under- standing and agreeing on the level of authority the employee will have. If the delegatee leaves your meeting with a misunderstanding about this issue, you may have to pay a high price for it, as the following example illustrates:

■        Lana was excited about being asked to recommend PCs to be purchased for their department; she had definite ideas about the features she and her coworkers needed. But now she was being interrupted in the middle of the assignment by her boss.


“Lana, I just got a notice from OfficePro; it says that they shipped 17 Achieva computers to us today!”


“Great! Did they say when they’d arrive?”


“You mean this is true? Why didn’t you talk it over with me?”  5       

“I did! Remember last week, when I showed you how the Achieva outperformed all of its competitors? And you agreed that even though it was a little more expensive than other brands, it seemed to be the best choice for us?”


“Yes, but I didn’t authorize you to order them! For one thing, why did you choose OfficePro?”


“Well, they’d just been really helpful.”


“But you don’t know if other companies sell the Achievas for less. And don’t you remember my saying that the purchase would have to wait until next quarter, when we’d be in better financial shape?”


“All I know is that I thought I was authorized to get us the computers we need so badly, so I did. Sorry.”


The price you or your delegatee pays for this misunderstanding may be in terms of dollars, a stinging embarrassment, resentment, or the failure of the project. So be sure the two of you are clear about how much authority the delegatee will have!


In hectic times, you will be tempted to take over and quickly solve the problem for the delegatee. But making a decision yourself and explaining it to delegatees won’t help them grow. It’s only when delegatees get the experience of solving problems that they develop their abilities and initiative. And as they become proficient at solving problems and move up the ownership ladder, you’re freed up to solve the larger problems that you rarely had time to tackle before.


Therefore, make it clear to your delegatees that the two lowest rungs of the ownership ladder are not options for them! Instruct them that when they encounter a dilemma or a difficulty, they should climb to the third rung (your more introverted delegatees will need more encouragement than the extroverted ones).


Insist that no problem be brought to your attention unless it’s accompanied by at least a couple of alternatives to solve it. Then you can discuss those alternatives, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each as you perceive them, and together, you and the delegatee can come to a decision.


Once you’ve coached and authorized your employees to act at level four or five in various situations, you’ll realize that the time you spent training and developing them was a wise investment for you, them, and your company.



1.       Consider how you will describe this assignment to the delegatee.

Help your delegatee understand both the details of completing the task and how it fits into the big picture:

•        What is the purpose of the task?

•        How does it relate to the goals of your area or your organisation?

•        How has the task been done in the past (if it has)?

•        Why are you delegating it now? Be honest: Is it to free up your own time, or do you really expect this assignment to be an interesting stretch for the employee? Don’t destroy your credibility by insisting that a “sow’s ear” is a “silk purse.” Note: Employees may be more accepting of mundane assignments if they understand how the assignments relate to the goals of your area and the organisation.

•        When will the assignment begin?

•        Do you welcome changes/improvements in how it’s done?


2.       Consider what you might say to help the employee welcome this delegation.

Goals are met by employees who choose to meet them, not by employees who are ordered to meet them. By understanding some of the things that motivate your employees and then explaining to them how doing this job relates to their interests, you’ll get stronger commitment to the assignment.

•        Why did you choose her or him, and why are you confident she or he can do it?

•        What previous experience will serve the employee well in this situation?

•        How might taking this assignment benefit the employee

—what’s “in it” for him or her? Will it mean more visibility? Skill building? A break from the routine? A new challenge? In short, how might the “payoff ” fit with the employee’s career goals?

3.       Consider the employee’s present workload.

Never ask an employee to “do it in your spare time.” This type of delegation:

•        Implies that you believe the employee isn’t always busy and has spare time that is currently wasted.

•        Means the job will probably never get done, due to confusion over its importance or because of conflicts with other tasks the delegatee must do by a certain date.

•        Trivializes the job. If the assignment isn’t important enough to make time for, why do it at all?


Work with the delegatee to determine how you might reprioritize or reassign some of the delegatee’s tasks to allow her or him to succeed at this one.


4.       Consider what additional training the employee might need to perform the task well.

Can the employee get up to speed quickly enough?


5.       Set clear goals for the task you’ve selected.

Quantify the results you want as specifically as possible. What will success look like? How will results be measured and performance be evaluated?


6.       Consider the constraints (if any) on how the job should be done.

If you specify as few constraints as possible, you’ll find your employee will:

•        Be more motivated and committed to the job because she or he gets to call the shots.

•        Feel free to be innovative or make improvements in past methods.

•        Derive optimum learning, whether s/he succeeds or fails.


7.       Consider any nasty surprises that could crop up.

•        What unusual circumstances or “danger points” should the delegatee know about? What could possibly go wrong, or has gone wrong in the past?

•        How can that be avoided?

•        What should the employee do if it occurs—come to you to discuss possible solutions? Take action and report to you what she or he has done?


8.       Consider how much authority the delegatee will have. Remember, your employee is accountable to you, but you are accountable, in the end, for the accomplishment of this task.

•        What resources will she or he control? What tools, equipment, and dollars will be available?

•        Do you need to take steps to make any resources available?

•        Will there be any new reporting relationships or lines of communication associated with this assignment?

•        Whom else will he or she work with or interview?

•        Do you need to clear the way for your delegatee by talking or writing to these people?

•        What types of decisions may she or he make, and which ones should be made by you or someone else?

•        Under what circumstances do you want to review or approve the delegatee’s work? For instance, if the delegatee is to design a plan of action, is he or she to get your approval before proceeding? Or design it and simply inform you? Or design it and use it without your seeing it?


9.       Determine the project’s deadlines and a date when you’ll

review the completed project with the delegatee.

The review date should be far enough ahead of the final deadline that the employee (or you, in an emergency) could take corrective action if necessary. And remember, since the delegatee will need more time to do the job than you would, she or he should start earlier than you would.


10.     Establish interim checkpoints so you can make sure the person is making progress.

The frequency of these checkpoints will depend on how complex the job is, how many people are involved, and how experienced the delegatee is.