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Paul Burri: Business 101 — The Wisdom and Skill of Delegation

Learning to delegate responsibility is one of the most difficult and least understood management skills. It goes against most of our instincts. In business we learn to strive for advancement and responsibility, and then when we finally achieve it, we are told that we need to give away the authority that we've striven so hard to get. Climbing the business ladder of success means striving for greater and greater positions of responsibility and control.

Greater responsibility usually means greater authority, and the irony is that when we finally achieve that higher plateau, we are advised to give away — or delegate — some of that authority. And most fearful, we give away some of our authority but we are still responsible for the final result. That is what makes delegation such a problematic management skill.

You have risen in the corporate ranks because you have demonstrated greater wisdom and skills than your associates or fellow employees. You have proven to higher management that you can consistently make better decisions than your co-workers. Now you are being advised to ask some of those same co-workers — some of whom will now be reporting to you and whom, for convenience in the rest of this discussion, will be referred to as your staff — to make decisions that you have proven you are better at making. It seems to defy logic somehow.

The wisdom of delegation comes in knowing several important benefits about the skill of delegation — and it is a skill.

Most importantly, being able to delegate frees you from having to perform every task yourself. It frees you to do the things that you have proven you are more capable of doing than your co-workers — who are now your staff. But unless you delegate some of your responsibilities, you will be mired in the more mundane tasks that could be performed by others. You will not be able to spend your time on the tasks that others are less capable of handling. Delegation allows you to perform your job more efficiently and to apply your proven skills more effectively.

Secondly, delegation allows you to train the people who now report to you — your staff — to develop and improve their skills. Without a staff of skilled, competent people to whom you can delegate, your job will take more of your personal time and effort. Your work will be harder and less efficient. It also could impede your own upward progress within your organization. If you are irreplaceable because there is no one who can do your job, you will be frozen there forever.

But delegating is fearful for people who are insecure. They are fearful of the consequences of a mistake made by one of "their people." Surely it will reflect on them. And yes, it will, if they are the kind of person who is unafraid to accept the total responsibility for whatever comes out of his or her department. The buck does stop with the leadership. That's you. But it is how leadership deals with internal mistakes that is key.

First, the leader must accept the total responsibility for his organization and the people within it. Then the vital next step is that he must take whatever action is necessary to correct the mistake and to prevent future similar mistakes. And he must allow his employees to continue to make mistakes — but to be sure that all learn from the mistakes of others. Every mistake should be taken as an opportunity for learning and for growth. Remember, you rarely learn from experiences that go as planned.

Refusing to allow employees to make mistakes — by severe penalties or threats — will only result in one thing. Your employees will never make any mistakes again. But they will never make any independent decisions again either. It's like the cat that sits on a hot stove. He will never sit on a hot stove again, but he'll never sit on a cold one either. Employees who have been sorely reprimanded for making a mistake will come to you to make every future decision, and when that happens, you are back to doing everything yourself. If you are making all the decisions and doing all the work, why do you need the people under you?

Delegation is also difficult because it requires that you carefully analyze the skill level of each of your employees. You need to have a clear idea of which employee can handle what responsibility. Delegating a task to an employee who is not capable of handling it is sure to end in failure — a costly experience for your company and a dispiriting experience for the employee. Conversely, assigning a menial task to a highly qualified employee can also have a negative effect.

Employees should be assigned to tasks that are within or slightly above their capabilities. Tasks that make them stretch — with your help, support and coaching as needed — also helps them grow and profits the organization.

Another danger of poor management and poor delegation skills is to micro-manage your employees. Micro-management is the failure to have any confidence in the abilities of the people to whom you are delegating. In effect, you are saying to them, "I don't really trust your ability to handle this task. I need you to tell me exactly how you intend to do each and every step in the process and report to me as you go along. And then I intend to review and change your final result as I see fit." Inevitably, your people will become reluctant — or worse yet, unable — to make any decision without getting your approval each time. You are back to doing everything yourself again.

Lastly, people who do not know how to delegate will frequently usurp the authority of the people to whom they have delegated responsibility. If you give an employee the authority to establish a rule or procedure, you do not have the right to arbitrarily usurp or abrogate that procedure at a whim or even for what you perceive to be a valid reason. The message you project is that everyone is subject to the rules and procedures — except you. Whenever you do that without an explanation to one of your employees, you inevitably incur employee resentment, distrust and cynicism.

But from time to time, there will be an occasion that requires an exception or a suspension of a particular rule. If and when that occurs and it becomes necessary for you, the manager, to do that, it is vitally important that you involve your employee in that decision, explain your reasons and even, when possible, allow that particular employee to be the person to break the rule and administer the exception.

Learning to delegate is a powerful management skill. It takes courage, wisdom and experience, and it's worth it.

— Goleta resident Paul Burri is a writer, columnist, inventor, woodworker, photographer, board member, business consultant and chairman of the local SCORE Recruitment Committee. Comments and praise are welcomed and can be directed to him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Criticisms are discouraged. The opinions expressed are his own.

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