The 4 Types of Delegation
The delegation climb
One of the key challenges senior ICs and new managers struggle with is effective delegation. For some the idea of delegating something they could perfectly well do themselves just doesn’t make any sense.
Others run themselves ragged trying to do everything on their own because they can’t bring themselves to trust their reports.
Or you have the managers who dive-bomb delegate, showing up at your office to drop a task on their report’s head, and disappear into the clouds like a cowardly kamikaze.
They aren’t being assholes. They are just bad at delegation.
The delegation climb
One day I had an epiphany: delegation actually can look very different depending on its intention. It’s sort of like climbing a mountain, starting with the easiest/most obvious way of delegating, and getting up into the rarified heights reserved for truly great managers.
Lower slopes: delegating for scale
This is the easiest and most obvious type of delegation: when a manager’s plate is overfilled, they start dropping tasks onto their reports.
The manager should consider the report’s strengths and weaknesses when handing off the work, though generally by the time delegation for scale becomes necessary the manager is so overwhelmed they might not be super-intentional with what they delegate.
Basecamp: delegating for visibility
When a manager is looking out for her reports she’ll naturally look for ways to increase their visibility. This can take the form of delegating the tasks that would allow for maximum positive exposure if successful.
The manager would then do her level best to ensure success and the resulting credit. This type of delegation doesn’t require much self-awareness on the part of the manager, just goodwill.
The climb up: delegating for weakness
The second-hardest, this type of delegation does require self-awareness on the part of the manager. Essentially she should understand her own weaknesses, and delegate away the tasks most affected by them.
For example, if you know process isn’t your thing, nominate someone on your team who enjoys it and have them do it. Don’t like maintaining your Jira board? Well, maybe you have someone on your team who would welcome the opportunity to contribute on a team-wide scale.
That approach serves several purposes.
- It helps make sure the task gets the attention and enthusiasm it needs to succeed.
- Takes a time-consuming task off your plate. (delegation for scale)
- Gives your report additional visibility, growing their scope. (delegation for visibility)
The summit: delegating for growth
This is the most difficult type of delegation because it requires not only self-awareness, but awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the manager’s reports. What the manager is trying to do here is route tasks to her reports that will help them grow in areas she sees as beneficial to their career.
Note that unlike other types of delegation, this type will require the manager’s active involvement, and likely won’t lessen her workload in any significant way. But lessening the workload isn’t the goal — growing her report is.
There’s one prerequisite to any kind of delegation. Trust. The manager had to decide (and it is a decision) to trust that the report can accomplish the task, albeit not necessarily in exactly the manager the manager would’ve done it herself.
And she needs to be okay with that. One of the worst things you can do as a manager is delegate a task to someone, and then micromanage it.
Don’t fall into the mistrust chasm. Learn to be okay with the work being done differently than expected. Sometimes those differences will actually be better than the original plan.
Some managers knee-jerk into delegating for scale. Good managers will look for opportunities to promote their reports. Truly excellent managers will find ways to grow their reports through carefully-chosen higher-level tasks.
A lot of what I’ve said above may seem highly obvious. And it is; in fact it’s so obvious people don’t spend much time thinking about it. That’s exactly the problem. Being intentional about why you’re delegating allows you to be far more effective. Which benefits both you and your reports.
Managing up: delegation as an IC
So what if you’re the report? How do you use this knowledge to your advantage?
Well, is your manager looking particularly ragged? Working overtime? Forgetting things? What if you had a chat with them, offering to help? You managers out there: how many reports have you had come to you with a similar offer, and what would you be prepared to do for them if anyone actually did?
What if you had a conversation with your manager about areas you think you need to improve, and a specific task you’d like to undertake to do so? Assuming you have a decent manager, they’re going to love you for that, because you’ve just made their job (trying to figure out how to help you grow) that much easier.
Let’s be clear: this work cannot replace your day-to-day tasks. I’m assuming that you’re keeping on top of those, and are looking for that extra boost to your career.
The surest way to get an underperforming review is to ignore (or be late with) your to-expectations tasks while you’re off chasing things you weren’t expected to do.
Delegation, when used effectively, is the way to achieve work/life balance and career growth for yourselves and your ICs. It’s also great for building team morale and the manager-report relationship.