The Misunderstood Art of Delegation

One of the most-misunderstood skills of a manager is delegation. Before becoming a manager myself, I had the common impression that delegation is when your boss gets you to do their job so they can go take 2-hour lunches. It turns out that’s only half true: delegation is about your manager getting you to do some of their job. But I’ve come to see how delegation is so much more than that: it’s the engine of individual and collective growth within an organization.

How Delegation Works

What really changed my mind about delegation was the Manager Tools: Basics podcast, an essential listen for new managers. In in, the hosts describe the function of delegation within an organization, which is twofold:

  1. Delegation as training: by teaching those you manage to take over some of your responsibilities, you’re preparing them to eventually grow into your job. And in doing so, you free up some of your own time to learn how to do your manager’s job. Done right, everybody is constantly growing.
  2. Delegation as forced prioritization: when your manager delegates one of their responsibilities to you, your plate is presumably already full, leaving a few options:
    • You can delegate one of your responsibilities to someone you manage (see point 1 above about growth)
    • You can invest in automating one of your responsibilities.
    • You can “delegate to the floor” and decide (presumably with your manager’s input) that one of your responsibilities isn’t important enough to keep doing.

Regardless of which you choose, each of these options makes your team more capable and efficient.

Of course, this can go pretty badly wrong, most commonly when someone delegates a responsibility to you and you don’t in turn delegate one of your own: then you just end up overwhelmed and burnt out. So it’s important that everyone on your team understands how delegation works. As a manager, when delegating a responsibility to someone, be sure to talk about how they’ll handle it, and what they can perhaps delegate or drop to make it possible.

And when delegating, you have to be okay with the fact that the person you delegate a responsibility to probably won’t do it as well as you would. Just remember that they’ll quite probably do as well as you did when you were first assigned it. Take the time to teach and prepare them, certainly, but you also have to learn to let go.

Helpful Managers and the Trap of Delegating Up

Camille Fournier, author of The Manager’s Path (another recommended resource for new engineering managers), recently wrote about another delegation anti-pattern: what I’ll call delegating up. That’s when a manager, often in a well-intentioned attempt to be helpful, takes on additional responsibilities from one of their direct reports. As a new manager suddenly responsible for the success of others, I often stepped in to fight my peoples’ battles, somtimes at the expense of my responsibilities to others I manage and the team at large. Interestingly, Fournier learned about this pitfall from the way some management-experienced reports avoided it for her:

when people bring me problems, my first instinct is to think of ways I can help them with these problems. Can I escalate it to one of my peers or my boss? Can I talk to the difficult employee for them, and try to improve the situation? Can I review the project plan and find the areas that are lacking detail and likely to cause the timeline to slip?

As I’ve managed people with a lot of management experience themselves, I’ve noticed that they very rarely take me up on these offers. Instead, they tell me exactly how they are thinking about tackling the situation, perhaps listen to a few bits of advice from me, and then only ask for my direct intervention when their efforts have failed. It’s totally awesome! And it has taught me a lot indirectly about effectively managing my own time, and what good delegation looks like.

Fournier goes on to suggest some useful tips for avoiding the trap of delegating up:

  • If you can help, timebox your support. Offer to help them think through a decision during your next 1:1, but avoid taking on “homework” yourself.
  • Ask them to help you help them. If they don’t know where to start with a task, ask them to make a first attempt for you to provide feedback on.

Perceived and Actual Responsibilities

In thinking about delegating responsibilities this week, I recognized a related quick win: dropping perceived (but not actual) responsibilities.

Where I work, I’m pleased to say employees are trusted to manage their own time off. We’re responsible for letting our teams know when we’ll be out and making sure we don’t leave anyone hanging, but there’s no formal approval process for time off. Nonetheless, a new-ish employee I manage, quite likely from having to do so at previous jobs, had gotten into the habit of asking my approval for vacation requests and time off for doctors’ visits. After a few times of responding with “Sounds good!” just to move it forward, I finally took the time to make clear that this wasn’t necessary. They got the message, and that’s one less uninspiring administrative task we each need to bother with.

I see two lessons here. One is to consider how many of your perceived responsibilities (things people ask you for) are actual responsibilities (things you have committed to doing) and to be clear, to yourself and others, on the difference. The second lesson is about the value of autonomy on teams. We were only able to avoid the time-off-request dance and focus on more important things because of the culture of trust and responsibility on my team, for which I’m grateful.