By Duncan Foord

28 January 2014 - 14:26

What prevents managers from delegating tasks? Photo ©

Mat Wright

Delegation is one of the toughest challenges for managers in English language teaching and elsewhere. Duncan Foord, who has worked with teachers, directors of studies, school managers and principals, answers seven questions about delegation.

Delegation is the area we need to attend to most if individuals and organisations are to develop effectively. Imagine a director of studies who doesn’t delegate effectively. At best, she will remain in her post, (just) managing to keep on top of things, but some of her teaching staff, starved of opportunities to develop, will become frustrated and maybe leave. At worst, she will burn out and also leave her post. If she delegates effectively, on the other hand, she may be on track to becoming the principal!

Experience tells us that language-teaching organisations with a strong delegation culture are likely to be more robust, happy and sustainable. So what is stopping us delegating effectively? Here are some typical questions people ask about delegation. I hope my answers will provide an indication at least of how we might get better at delegating:

1. Are there certain tasks that lend themselves to delegation better than others?

Ideally, you should spend your time doing tasks which only you can do. Delegate everything else (easier said than done, of course)! We are often emotionally attached to certain tasks or we simply enjoy doing them. I’m always amazed by millionaire footballers who drive their own cars. Why don’t they get a chauffeur? However, you can take some steps to delegating. Make a list of all the main tasks you do in a week. Then, put a tick by each task you think someone else could do. Choose one of the items you ticked and delegate it.

2. How much time should a manager expect to devote to managing the delegation of a task, especially at first?

It will be easier to answer this if we look at the diagram above, where Ken Blanchard (all references below) suggests there are four situations in which the delegation can take place. In situation 1 (S1, bottom right), the person delegated to is basically told what to do: 'Go do these photocopies and leave them in my tray.' Stephen Covey refers to this as 'Gofer delegation'. In situation 2 and 3, the person delegated to has more responsibility to make decisions and decide how the task is done, 'Can you make sure everyone has the photocopies they need?'. In situation 4 (bottom left), the delegee is effectively autonomous, supported perhaps by some occasional checking: 'How is the photocopying service working?'.

How to let go: seven questions about the art of delegation - table

The amount of guidance and feedback will depend on the situation. The situation is determined by the capabilities and experience of the person being delegated to and the task in hand. A director of studies, for example, may be in stage 4 for timetabling, 3 for recruitment and 2 or even 1 for finance-related tasks. 2 and 3 require the most support from the coach/manager. So, the time devoted will vary. You can use the diagram to help discuss with the delegee where they think they are on the chart and what support they need from you.

3. Is it worth putting in more time showing someone how to do something than it would take to do the job yourself, because you'll eventually be rewarded by them being able to do it without your help?

Yes, absolutely. Situations 2 and 3 above especially require time. Think of it as an investment. In the long term, that time will be more than saved when the person is doing the job independently. It’s not just an investment in time, you are also investing in enriching that person’s life, building their autonomy, self-esteem and enjoyment of their work.

4. How can managers get over the sense that 'if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself' and avoid the urge to micro-manage, especially if someone has done a task to a poorer standard than they'd like in the past?

This is a very unfortunate saying, especially when uttered with a sense of grim satisfaction: 'No-one is as good as me', it seems to imply. If you are a control freak, step one in your rehab is to acknowledge you are and think about how that might affect others. Step two is to accept that the person you delegate to will most likely do the job differently from you and possibly do it worse than you (in an objective sense). If you have potty-trained a child, you will be familiar with this scenario. But you still have to do it! Think about how you can 'delegate for success' without micro-managing. In other words, set goals and suggest options, but allow the delegee to make their own choices about how to reach the goals. Allow them also to make mistakes and learn from them. Stephen Covey refers to this as 'stewardship delegation', where the main objective is to create a sense of accountability. Micro-managing will destroy this.

5. What's the best way to set clear expectations about what you want when delegating? Is it with written instructions? Or is a conversation best?

A conversation with a written record (not instructions) is the way to go. Avoid trying to delegate on the phone or by e-mail. To structure the conversation and the written record it can be helpful to use a SMART plan. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound. Thinking about the delegated task in these terms will help you create clear goals and help structure effective feedback. For example: 'The (SMART) plan we agreed was for you to organise three development workshops between now and Easter with ten teachers or more attending each one. So how did that go?'

6. How can people judge who is the right person to delegate a task to?

Know your team and their strengths and interests. If you aren’t sure, ask them. Test motivation by asking for volunteers rather than nominating. Following the SMART plan above will help you find out the extent of your delegee’s commitment.

7. What's the best way to balance criticism/correction of mistakes with encouragement?

Some people respond better to criticism than others. In some cases, the best strategy may be to give no criticism at all, only praise. The idea being that the delegee in this case will respond by behaving more often in the way you praise and, as a consequence, less often in the 'undesired' way. Everyone responds to criticism better than they would otherwise, if there is a high degree of trust in the relationship, so it may be worth investing time in building trust. Regardless of your approach to criticism, always remember to give credit and recognition, preferably in public, to the person you have delegated to.

References: Stephen Covey, 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Ken Blanchard et al., 'Leadership and the One Minute Manager' (William Morrow & Co., 1985).

Follow Duncan's British Council webinar on Wednesday, 29 January 2014.

You might also be interested in: