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Effective delegation in business requires a reliable, rule-based approach that not only delegates work, but also delegates the authority to make relevant decisions. In order to achieve the organizational benefits of delegating leadership and avoiding common pitfalls, leaders have to get both the WHAT and the HOW of delegating power right.


The true meaning of delegation in management and what leaders (often) get wrong

Delegation in business is one of those topics where researchers and coaches (and even most leaders) agree on two things: delegating is key to organizing effectively and, at the same time, it is not done enough. We believe that many leadership coaching tips and tricks regarding delegation make total sense as these approaches seek to address the issue on a behavioral level (e.g. starting with small tasks, getting used to delegation over time, and ultimately doing it more often). However, for systematic and significant promotion of good delegation practices, we also believe the management structures must change.


Realizing the value of delegation through a conscious, rule-based and formal delegation of authority

To establish effective delegation, managers and their teams need to make delegating a reliable routine with clear rules. Only then can the benefits of delegation be realized.

In fact, delegation by name only, when the proclamation of lofty leadership principles relapses into micromanagement once fear of over-delegation kicks in, probably does more harm than good. In these cases, the whole collaborative model is too dependent on the power dynamic of hierarchical reporting relationships to actually work.

The best examples we have seen of delegation in the workplace have resulted from a combination of a strong company culture (culture in the sense of unwritten rules everyone in the organization had learned were reliable) and some kind of formalization of the delegation of authority. In these cases, there was a charter that codified the transfer of power over a specific domain to a role or a team, and the role owner (and her team) could trust that this charter was legitimate.

How do you bring about this kind of successful delegation in your organization, with all the positive effects on organizational energy and entrepreneurial behavior that a paradigm of empowering and delegating entails?

We suggest that making a conscious, organization-wide decision regarding the WHAT and the HOW of delegation is essential to achieving smart, effective delegation.


Work with the management functions matrix to promote delegation and self-management


The WHAT of effective delegation: delegate tasks but also delegate responsibility (and formalize it)

This subtitle could also be rephrased as: don’t just delegate tasks but create a system where responsibility and duties are formally delegated so they can’t simply be withdrawn at the whim of a superior.

Some types of delegation are inherently formal, e.g. when the delegation of signature authority is formally laid down in a “signature authorization and delegation of authority” policy. The same formal effect is typically created in the case of a role or job delegation, as long as the remit, and the authority that accompanies this job or this role, are described in written form. The same goes for financial delegation of authority: here it is typically a matter of financial responsibility, or spending limits, that describe the scope of the delegated authority.

However, if only work or single tasks are being delegated downward, managers shouldn’t be surprised if the actual responsibility is constantly delegated back upward. (Mere) delegation of work leads to reverse delegation of decision-making. The less reliable and routinized the delegation practices are, the more this unhealthy and ineffective dynamic will take hold.

(We should mention that we do not discuss the WHO of delegation because within a traditional management hierarchy this is clear: the formal boss has the authority to delegate tasks to employees, and, vice versa, tasks or responsibilities are delegated to employees.)


The HOW of effective delegation: delegating leadership must set a reliable framework for employees so they can use the granted authority

As described above, effective delegation must comprise decision-making authority (and not just execution of tasks), and it must rely on rules, whether they are informal - because they are based on a strong culture - or formal, because they are codified in some way.

There are therefore two ways to get your delegation right: via your culture or via your structure.

If you rely on unwritten rules or a culture, a key lever will be delegation training, for example, as part of your leadership development work.

If you take the formal route and work through your organizational structure and its decision-making mechanisms, you (or your individual leaders) should come up with some defined delegation list, chart, or matrix that creates a joint understanding of how authority is used in your organization.

As part of the Organize for Self-Management Kit, we have created a Management Functions Matrix designed to analyze and design clearly scoped decision-making rights, along all the key management functions that must be covered - one way or another - in any organization. Check out the Kit here.


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