Look at the calendars of most managers and executives, and you’ll see they’re packed with meetings. Subordinates struggle to gain a little face time or get help with a tricky issue, and colleagues struggle to find time for collaboration. Their best chance is often scheduling a meeting several days or even weeks out, and even these often get pushed back further as everyone deals with competing demands on their limited time.
This lack of availability is often due to the fact these leaders’ input or sign-off is needed on key decisions—approval to move forward with a proposed project, guidance on the approach for handling an unhappy customer, or even the proper wording for an important e-mail!
But let’s take a deep breath.
Maybe these beleaguered managers and executives need to take a step back and ask themselves if it’s genuinely necessary for them to be present at each one of these meetings or to be called upon for input whenever a subordinate faces a decision. Are there opportunities for leaders to better delegate, develop, and empower their staff members and, at the same time, free up their own time?
In this feature, we explore the question of whether managers are delegating enough and provide some advice on approaches to take when considering whether and how to delegate more.
Authority Versus Responsibility
It’s critical to start any discussion on delegation with a review of the distinction between authority and responsibility. There’s a very sound maxim in business and military contexts suggesting that one can delegate authority but not responsibility. What does this mean exactly? Let’s look at each element separately.
Delegating authority is the practice of imparting decision-making power to a subordinate, allowing that subordinate to act as an agent of the manager and speak on his or her behalf. This could mean the authority to sign off on vacation time requests for other team members, approve budget requests, or make go/no-go decisions on key project phases. Delegating authority is a key aspect of delegation in general, and it’s something managers should be encouraged to do.
Managers cannot, on the other hand, delegate responsibility. Delegating responsibility is essentially washing one’s hands of accountability and saying “not my problem.”
For example, if a manager delegates authority to an associate manager to decide whether to proceed with a key project in the manager’s group, the manager is still responsible for that decision. If the project flops and the decision to proceed was a bad decision, the manager can’t simply say “well, it was the associate manager who made the call, not me” because it was the manager’s decision to delegate that authority. Managers are responsible not just for their own decisions but also for decisions delegated to subordinates.
It follows, then, that managers delegating their authority need to be able to trust the subordinates they’re delegating to. That trust comes from both a confidence in a subordinate’s practical abilities—technical aptitude, knowledge, experience, etc.—and that person’s judgment and reliability.
Because managers bear ultimate responsibility for decisions delegated to subordinates, they must be sure those subordinates are capable of making sound decisions and can be relied upon to approach those decisions with the appropriate level of care and diligence.
Subordinates also must be accountable for their actions and decision-making with respect to delegated tasks. But wait a minute! Didn’t we just say that the manager retains responsibility when delegating authority? Yes, we did, and that’s still true; managers are responsible to their own superiors and the broader organization for any authority they delegate.
However, a manager also needs to hold those exercising that delegated authority accountable within the context of the team the manager oversees and the manager-subordinate relationship.
Just as it wouldn’t be fair or effective for managers to wash their hands of a decision made with authority delegated to a subordinate, it wouldn’t be fair or effective to allow the subordinate to shrug off accountability for a poor or careless decision made while acting under a manager’s delegated authority. Just because the manager retains ultimate responsibility doesn’t mean subordinates don’t need to act with care and diligence themselves.
Coaching and Staff Development
Some managers reading this article might be thinking: “This sounds great, but I can’t think of a single person on my team I’d trust with my delegated authority.” This unfortunate and widespread situation is a major problem for organizations around the world.
The solution to this problem is better coaching and staff development.
Any manager would love to be blessed with a responsible and competent group of subordinates ready, willing, and able to accept delegated authority from day 1, but this isn’t realistic.
Great managers are also great at coaching and developing staff. They work with raw or underdeveloped talent to create the kinds of responsible, effective, prudent, and reliable subordinates who can be trusted with delegated authority. Managers who delegate their authority to subordinates who don’t meet that high bar are negligent in their responsibilities.
As it happens, one of the best ways to develop subordinates into the kind of staff managers can feel confident delegating to is simply to gradually increase their level of delegated authority.
Managers should start by tasking subordinates with handling low-risk decisions and, for those who demonstrate ability and dependability, slowly growing the level of their delegated authority. This not only takes increasing burden off the manager from a time commitment perspective but also serves as a great talent development exercise.
In many organizations, managers’ lives are full of competing demands and very full plates. Too often, managers are hesitant to lighten their load by delegating to subordinates, often because they simply feel like they can’t trust them. This hesitancy wastes both a valuable support structure and an effective staff development tool, but authority can’t be delegated lightly. Managers need to be sure those they’re delegating to are competent and reliable. Sometimes, this means investing some additional upfront effort in staff development.