The importance of delegation in helping leaders to ration and conserve their energies has emerged from an interview with Lisa Borders: president of the US Women's National Basketball Association.

In the piece, Borders says: “I’m the oldest child in my family – pretty much a type-A personality – and I used to think I had to do everything. What I found is when you do that, it is just exhausting. There’s no way for you to do everything.” She points out: “What is true is that everybody adds value and you should value every voice. You can only do that if you build trust with people, which means you have to give them an opportunity to perform and give them room to grow.

“By that I mean every time they take on a new initiative or a project, it's not going to be perfect. It's not going to turn out exactly the way you thought you were going to do it. You have to give people space to stretch and grow, and sometimes even fail, because there's a lot of learning in failing.”

She notes: “failure is not fatal, it's feedback.”

However, companies historically have a poor track record on encouraging staff to delegate. For example, a 2012 Harvard Business Review study called ‘Why Aren’t You Delegating?’ found that almost half the employers surveyed were worried about their workers’ delegation skills – and hardly any of them provided the kind of training that would ensure staff could farm out tasks with confidence.

Four years later, a follow-up HBR study suggested that coaching should be deployed in tandem with delegation, because even though employees may not be instantly capable of taking on fresh responsibilities, a coach can help them build in the skills required to eventually take on significant, new tasks with minimal supervision.

To what extent is this assessment on target, and what other strategies can a reluctant delegator use to open up to their staff’s input?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Often, when a line manager who uses coaching techniques is presented with a question or decision by an employee, their response will be to ask that individual, ‘What would you do? What do you think the right answer is?’ And that’s the key here: the sharing of the responsibility for the delegation. It’s no good giving somebody a big job and saying, ‘Well, I’m going to delegate that job and, since we all learn from failure, we can inspect the damage further down the line if it all goes wrong.’ That can be a confidence-crushing approach – not to mention a business-harming one, too.”

As such, Cooper explains, “what we want here is for us managers to recognise not only that people can do far more than we think they can, but that employees in many cases can do far more than they think they can – and together, we can share the responsibility for handing out tasks. It’s not a ‘sink-or-swim’ proposition: we can assess whether staff are ready to take on particular types of work. Plus, staff have lifelines of support if they need them, and the overarching message that failure isn’t fatal. But overall, we can ensure that they are helped to learn from the experience.”

She notes: “yes, delegation represents a risk of management. But where there’s a shared understanding between the manager and employee – plus a confidence in that worker to take on new responsibilities – a bedrock of assurance is in place. We know from research that people who are successful and have reached senior leadership positions often had a moment in their careers where they were presented with a high-profile project that they were able to lead on, and they then became associated with its positive outcomes. So one, key factor is the confidence of the individual to step up. Another is the confidence of the manager in their own ability to lead, manage, inspire, nurture and support.”

Cooper adds: “it’s also about managers remembering that they look good if their staff are good. And individual employees remembering that they look good if their managers look good. So praise or recognition isn’t a zero-sum matter. There’s more than enough to go round for everyone. And the glow of achievement can genuinely be shared.”

For further thoughts on assuming responsibility, check out these learning resources from the Institute

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