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From “Doing” to “Leading”: How to Delegate Decision-Making to Your Team

When leaders delegate more responsibility for decision making, they see increased employee productivity, morale, and commitment as well as improved company culture and lower turnover rates (Gallup 2015). This type of employee empowerment not only improves the bottom line but also helps create an environment where employees can feel confident in their abilities to solve problems and make decisions on their own. In this article, we’re going to share how to delegate decision-making responsibility and how to support your people as they work through and implement decisions.  

Delegating is something many leaders know they should do, but often don’t. One of the most difficult transitions for leaders to make is the shift from doing to leading. In order to become an effective leader, you have to let go of work. You have to stop becoming mired in details that only individual contributors should be handling. And you need to let go of control: empowering others means letting them take risks and make mistakes – all  are essential parts of learning how to lead. Your colleagues may even value your willingness to “roll your sleeves up” to execute tactical assignments. But as your responsibilities become more complex, the difference between an effective leader and an overstretched individual contributor with a leader’s title is painfully evident.

Leaders often find it more difficult to delegate decision-making responsibility than to delegate a task. Delegation means giving up control over part of your work. Some leaders lack confidence in the delegatee’s ability and hover over them, taking over when things go off track.  You have to trust that someone else will do it well, with minimal direction and input from you. And that can be hard – especially when you’re used to doing things yourself. 

However, delegation is about more unloading busy work on others.  We often work with leaders who confuse delegation for dumping and leave the responsibility to their direct report and then don’t support them on an ongoing basis.  Effective delegation is about creating a framework that allows your people to grow into their potential. To really empower your people, don’t just delegate tasks; make sure people get a chance to make decisions about their work as well. Delegated decision-making responsibility is an essential tool of any modern manager.

If you constantly finding yourself as the bottleneck to your team’s work – with everyone waiting for your review, sign-off or input – then it’s time to take another look at delegation. It’s an effective tool for speeding up work, allowing others the opportunity to develop their skills and for moving decision-making into the hands closest to the work who may actually be better placed to make decisions than you.  

We’ve broken down the delegation process into 2 stages:

Stage 1: Preparing to Delegate 

The key to delegating decision making like so many other things is preparation. Making time for some preliminary work can help ensure the whole process runs smoothly, saving time and overall effort. 

It’s important to perceive a decision as a workflow made of a series decisions and actions rather than a one-off event. To support your people, you have to provide them with the information they need to apply good judgement, you need to delegate sufficient authority to them, so they don’t keep coming back to you, you need to lay out a clear path for them, facilitate relationships with key stakeholders and you need to monitor and support at a safe distance to ensure they stay on track.  

Step 1: Write down in clear language the decision you are preparing to delegate.   

Before sitting down with your direct report, you need to sit down and write down the decision you are delegating. This way you have real clarity when you sit down with them. This includes what the decision is, the rationale, why it’s important, what the impact will be and any key dependencies and define what “done” or “good” looks like.   It’s also good practice to send a summary email of the decision you have delegated afterwards to ensure there are no misunderstandings and interpretations.

Step 2: Realistically Assess the Delegatee’s Abilities 

Have they done this before and how successful were they? How confident are you in them, how confident are others? How well networked in the organisation are they?  Do they prefer to be given the big picture so that they can just work it out, or do they prefer to hear instructions step by step? All these questions will help you decide how much support is required and to what extent you will need to seed ideas to set them off on the right path.  

Step 3: Work out what is your preferred timeline for completion along with milestones  

This way you can be clear of your expectations. Providing milestones breaks the decision down into manageable chunks. During the actual delegation discussion, you should be open to make changes based on new information that comes up. However, it’s good to be clear upfront what your expectations are so there are no misunderstandings.

Step 4: Describe, in specific terms, the level of authority being delegated. 

Think through the decision-making authority they will need to get this decision made and implemented. Do they need sign off limits, Think of Different “If This, Then That (IFTT)” scenarios. For example, if the Head of Finance refuses to provide one of their team to implement their decision, then what should they do?  

Step 5: When and Where? 

If it’s a challenging decision, then it’s best you arrange a specific time for the meeting when you won’t be rushed or disturbed. It’s even better if the agenda is clear and you can just focus on this task, so they have a clear mind and not on other topics you’ve discussed 

Stage 2: The Delegation Session

You’ve done your preparation, it’s now time to sit down with your direct report to take them through the delegation process. You need to remember this is as much a development opportunity as it is a key decision for your team or your organisation.  One of the essential skills you will be using in the conversation is coaching, as you invite them to think for themselves rather than spoon feed the answers and give them specific directions. Coaching is a muscle that you build up over time with practice. However, you don’t need to be an experienced coaching to delegate a decision well. The very talented Michael Bungay-Steiner devised but immensely powerful questions that encourages your people to think for themselves. During this section we’ll be weaving a small selection of his questions and adapting them to support delegating decision-making process.  

Step 1: Take them through your prepared notes and invite questions 

Firstly, take them the through the decision you are delegating, working through the points you have prepared. Explain why you have selected them for the decision, particularly to build their confidence.  

Once you’ve explained, ask if they have any clarifying questions or if anything is unclear. Depending on their level of experience, you might want to give them an opportunity to go away and do some thinking and then arrange a follow-up meeting where you will go into the following questions in depth.  

Step 2: Ask “What options are you considering?” 

The most effective decision outcomes happen when you consider multiple options (Nutt, 2002). By asking this question, you encourage people to think about more than one potential solution (and not fall in love with their first idea). If they only share one option, ask “and what else?” It’s an extremely powerful coaching question as it encourages deeper thinking. You can follow this up by asking them “What are the Pros and Cons of each option?” This helps them think through the trade-offs of each decision and reduces overconfidence bias. Remember, if they are inexperienced, they won’t be able to trust their intuition as much as someone who is experienced, so you need to help them think for themselves. If they have no idea where to start, then this is when you can seed the idea. Give them a few suggestions about who they might need to talk to, or what research they will need to conduct in order to develop suitable options.  

Step 3: Ask “What are the challenges for you with this?” 

This question helps identify what the challenges are that stand in the way of a successful decision and implementation. Adding “for you” makes it more personal and increases the chance this conversation might identify some developmental needs. By inviting them to be vulnerable, this can help you build a more transparent and trusting relationship, allowing you to support them in the optimal way. As their manager you might be well placed to help them overcome or reduce any potential challenges along the way, such as introducing them to a challenging stakeholder.  

Step 4: Explain what will done/ good like to you at the end of the decision process?  

It’s so important that you both agree on what the end result looks like. By asking this question, it gives you both an opportunity to share your perspectives, agree what the standard should be you want to achieve at the end of the process. At the same time, you can also discuss what happens once the decision has been made and implemented. Will they hand responsibility over to someone else and how will they do it? Effective decision makers are often held back as they find it difficult to pass on responsibility once their part in a decision has been completed.

Step 5: Ask “How can I help (during the process)”?  

Your natural preference could be to just leave them to it or to stay close in case they make a mistake. It’s important in delegation that you ask them first. Is it weekly check-ins, will you be available at short notice if they need you? Will you be needed to attend initial meetings to help build relations with other departments?  This is where you agree how you will support them during the process. It’s important that you provide ongoing feedback and help them through any mistakes they make. Agree up front how often you will both meet up, how long will your meetings last? Ask “what knowledge or expertise you need from me”? Ask “Do you need me to arrange any meetings with stakeholders or speak to a stakeholder’s manager in order to prepare them for their work with you?”  

Step 6: At the end of the meeting, Ask “What’s on your mind?” 

Once you’ve completed the delegation process, this question gives your team member an opportunity to voice any reservations they have about the decisions or share any concerns. Sometimes it can be challenging for a direct report to share with their manager any doubts they have about their ability or experience to make the decision. You can follow this first question by asking “and what else?” as this allows you to dig deeper. This forces your team member to think deeper about what’s the issue is. It also shows you’re keen to hear from them and get to the heart of the matter. It’s important to surface these things now so you can support them in the best way possible. 

Step 7: Ask “Because you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? 

This helps ensure that the person doesn’t get overwhelmed by work and stays focused. Often when our manager asks us to do something we want to make a good impression, so we say yes regardless of how busy we are.  

Step 8: Ask “What was most useful for you in this delegation session, what could we do better next time?” 

Reviewing your processes, are the sign of a great delegator. By taking a few moments to review the conversation and think about how you can improve it, will speed up your preparation for your next delegation and save you time 

Conclusion

As you can see with some preparation and quality time with your direct report you can help them take on greater levels of responsibility and accelerate their development.

By following this process you’re encouraging your direct report to develop their decision-making judgement. You’re setting clear expectations and helping them develop the skills they need to succeed. If you would like further information about the process for delegating a decision to a direct report, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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