Do You Delegate or Do You Dump? Five Levels of Delegation, Defined.
Does this story sound familiar? “Sally isn’t working out. She is always bothering me for the simplest of decisions and often waits for direction from me before taking any action. I don’t have time for this!” More than once I have heard a leader make a statement such as this. While Sally may need coaching, it’s often the leader who has inadvertently caused this behavior and is baffled as to why.
Most people truly want to do a good job. Seldom is staff trying to be actively disengaged. Instead, we set up processes or unspoken rules, and fail to let people know what is expected of them and how we want them to operate. Yet, when they go off track, we are irritated they didn’t know the path. As leaders, we could all look at ways we help or hinder our teams with managing expectations— delegation being one of the most critical.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Business moves quickly today. Letters have become emails. Emails are becoming text messages. When we move faster, we sometimes forget we can’t dump something over the fence to a team member (or a consultant) and expect it to succeed.
When dumping does miraculously succeed, it is often because the person “catching” the activity has worked with the leader and, over a period of time, has learned to read their shorthand. In contrast, new people struggle— consultants especially— as they lack the benefit of understanding shorthand communication and expectations.
As a result, leaders can end up having their often-precious time wasted dealing with a breakdown in this fundamental practice. When it doesn’t go well, they spend time sorting out things like: Where is your deliverable? Why do you need me to approve every decision? Why didn’t you ask me my opinion? What is the progress?
THE FIVE LEVELS OF DELEGATION
Using levels of delegation builds and maintains trust by making expectations clear (and agreed upon in advance), while avoiding micromanagement and misunderstandings. Proper delegation also allows leaders to take time off without returning to chaos, or work coming to a standstill when they are gone.
Although, you can’t jump to the higher levels of delegation unless you have worked together for a while, or if you have an experienced consultant accustomed to operating at these levels.
LEVEL 1: MAP. FOLLOW MY INSTRUCTIONS EXACTLY
I already know what I want to do and how I want you to do it.
This level is typically a starting point for new or more junior team members. At this level:
- Describe the desired deliverables and clearly define the approach to the work
- Help team members understand the “why” and your rationale
- Explain your role and theirs
- Discuss deadlines and how/when they will check in or provide status
LEVEL 2: RESEARCH. INVESTIGATE THE TOPIC AND REPORT BACK YOUR RECOMMENDATION
I want to hear about what you discovered, but I will make the decision and tell you what I want you to do.
Once team members successfully demonstrate their skill at Level 1, move them up to the next level: making recommendations. While team members are still responsible for Level 1 work, they will also be expected to develop possible solutions and to recommend (and justify) the best one. At this level:
- Review possible solutions
- Test the quality of the recommendation
- Make the decision on how to implement it
- As with Level 1, you should let team members know what you have decided and how you came to those decisions
LEVEL 3: ACTION PLAN. EXAMINE THE TOPIC, OUTLINE THE OPTIONS, AND MAKE A RECOMMENDATION WITH AN ACTION PLAN
Give me the pros and cons of each path, but tell me what you think we should do. If I agree with your decision, I will authorize you to move forward.
Remember, the levels of delegation are progressive. By the time team members reach Level 3, they should have successfully mastered the skills required in Levels 1 and 2. Level 3 delegation includes the general recommendations made in Level 2, while adding the development of a specific action plan to implement the recommended solution. When delegating at this level:
- It is up to you to define your expectations for the form and substance of the report or deliverable
- Once the plan has been submitted, review it, approve it, and oversee the implementation of the plan
- As with the other levels, you should let team members know what you have decided and how you came to that decision
- Since the plan will likely involve them in executing the plan, you might consider also delegating some of the implementation tasks—at the appropriate level, of course.
LEVEL 4: DECIDE. MAKE A DECISION AND THEN TELL ME WHAT YOU DID
I trust you to do the research, make the best decision you can, and then keep me informed so someone else won’t surprise me.
At Level 4, you hand over responsibility for decision making to your team members. Before moving them up to Level 4, you need to be completely satisfied with their results at Level 3. If team members progress to this level too quickly or are not fully up to speed, you may find yourself micromanaging their work, which undermines your good work in delegation.
When delegating at this level:
- Make sure they know you are available to coach and support them, but you expect them to act independently
- Monitor progress regularly by asking for regular check-ins, reviewing the status of the projects, and warning team members when you sense problems
- Be ready to reward great results and, more importantly, support failure
- You should also start thinking about how to use the time you have freed up by successfully delegating!
LEVEL 5: OWN IT. MAKE WHATEVER DECISION YOU THINK IS BEST
I trust you completely and I know you will follow through. I have your back.
This level demonstrates a high level of confidence in team members. Be certain you have good controls in place to flag any mistakes before they can become a major hassle.
Full delegation means just that: It’s time to turn the task over to your team members completely. Before you delegate at Level 5, however, their decision-making must be consistently sound. When you are ready to completely delegate at this level:
- Make sure team members understand that you trust them to decide, act and follow-through
- Tell them to report back to you with exceptions and unique problems, but, otherwise, it’s their task and they are fully accountable for its successful completion
- Be ready to reward great results, including a promotion to team members who reach Level 5 with multiple tasks
Remember Sally? Once she understood her leader wanted her to be operating at Level 4: Decide, and they established an agreement, Sally soon became a top performer. In just a few months, she was operating at Level 5: Own It. All it took was defining the expectations, and giving her room to meet them.