Delegate, don't dump

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Lots of bosses are good at dumping, but not at delegating. They're great at off-loading the things they don't like to do and dropping assignments on their team members with little or no guidance.

Other bosses think that delegating is always the best way to assign work. That's not right either.

When you've got a competent and willing team member, delegation is the right way to go. But it's not a good choice for workers who aren't as competent or as committed.

Delegation is only one among the four basic options to choose from when you assign work to a team member. Here they are in order from the one where you exercise the most control to delegation, where you exercise the least.

"Telling" is the style where you make all the basic decisions about how the work will be done. There are two situations where it's the right choice.

Telling is good for people who may be new to the job. They usually have lots of enthusiasm, but they don't know how to do the job yet. Coaching should be a big part of your telling, so your new team members learn the ropes and stay enthusiastic. 

Use Telling with team members who've proved that they may have the competence, but they don't work responsibly on their own.  Those are discipline problems and tight control is appropriate.

"Discuss and Tell" is the name I give to the style where you discuss things with your team member, but you keep control of most decisions about how things will be done. This is good for less experienced people who either need instruction or who need their confidence built up. 

Discuss and Tell is the style that most managers seem to like best and revert to under pressure.  They think it lets them be both "participative" and in control.  But using only Discuss and Tell is a bad idea, especially when you're helping a team member grow and develop.

At some point, your team member will demonstrate that he or she understands the work that needs to be done. That's the time to use the style I call "Discuss and Allow." With that style you discuss the work with your team member, and then let them decide what to do.

"Discuss and Allow" is the hardest option for most managers because it involves giving up control before they're really sure how competent a team member is. But it's essential if your team member is going to develop to a point where you can delegate to him or her.

Most of the bosses I've worked with want to hang on to control too long. If that team member is pushing you to let him or her try things their way, I suggest you do so. Follow up more closely if you must, but the big learning jump for most folks comes when they get to try things on their own.

Some bosses fall off the other side of the horse. They want to jump right over this step and simply assign work.  Don't do it.

Part of your job as a manager is developing your people so they can do whatever you assign. That won't happen all at once.  To make sure they develop well, you've got to go through Discuss and Allow before you move to the style I call "Allow" or "Delegate."

When you delegate, you give your team member the assignment and ask what they need from you. This is true delegation. It's only appropriate for people who have mastered the work to be done and who willingly pitch in. It's only appropriate if they have all the resources they need to do the job.

As you work with people new to the job you'll move through the four styles as they grow and develop.  Remember that you use different styles with different people and with the same people on different tasks.  You make your decision on what style to use based on your team member's ability and willingness to handle the specific work you need to assign.

Boss's Bottom Line

Part of your job is to help your team members develop. That will only happen if you give them as much control over their work life as you can, based on their ability to do the job and their willingness to tackle it on their own.

This post is based on material in the Working Supervisor's Support Kit.

Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 9/20/2010 11:23 AM Jeffrey Thomas wrote:
    Great post. I have found that certain individuals will react differently going through these steps than others. I recall certain employees that I have worked with in the past who did not respond well to "telling" regardless of how well they know the job. This was always very frustrating.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/20/2010 1:00 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Good point, Jeffrey. You're right, there's a huge variation in the way people react to supervision of any kind. I've had people who didn't want any direction at all and others who hung on to having the boss make decisions long after they were ready to perform on their own. We are a fascinating breed, we humans.


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  • 9/20/2010 12:54 PM Scott W. wrote:
    Wally, I really like the way you've broken down delegating into subcategories here. I think it's something that I have done in the past, but I haven't done it consciously. A lot of time is wasted when we do this iteratively; first using "Discuss and Tell" with poor (or zero) results and eventually returning for painstaking "telling." Using your line of thinking before delegating, with an employee's capabilities in mind, would be a lot wiser.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/20/2010 1:05 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Good points, Scott. One reason this turned into a system was that I had to develop a way to describe the different methods of assigning work to new suupervisors. If you can make a judgment about the ability and willingness of a team member, you can increase your odds of picking the right place to start. Even so, you'll have to adjust. it's just part of the work.

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  • 9/20/2010 1:14 PM Michael Leiter wrote:
    Well put.
    Control is an area of worklife that makes a big difference in where people find themselves in the are between burnout and workengagement. I agree with your point of finding the right balance for an individual. And recognizing that it changes over time. More isn't always better, but the right balance of control and support has a significant impact on one's worklife.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/20/2010 2:35 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Well said, Michael. Thanks for adding your voice. I think there are different, but closely related things to consider. One is the ability/willingness evaluation I wrote about in the post. The other is a team member's personal preference for how much they want you to pay attention to them. Some like to work without much contact. Others, with the same level of skill and commitment, prefer to have you check in fairly frequently. It's a little different for every one.

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  • 9/21/2010 4:40 PM Patrick wrote:
    Nice post.
    In my opinion, the "telling" not only indicates speaking to team members. It is also meaning detail rules or schedules which are used for team members who are not very confidence on what they are going to do or totally not familiar with what they are doing.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/21/2010 5:06 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Patrick. The great supervisors that I've studied found many ways to communicate at every stage of the continuum. The idea is to do what's necessary to be effective with each team member. It's adjusting to their needs, rather than your preferences.

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  • 9/21/2010 11:37 PM Tina wrote:
    Thanks for the helpful post. I wish I'd known about this structure earlier - it would have saved me from many a mistake in assigning projects. I'll be posting this on my company intranet tomorrow!
    Reply to this
    1. 9/22/2010 9:54 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for those kind words, Tina. I'm glad you found the post useful and thrilled that you're also sharing it with others.

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  • 9/22/2010 9:23 AM Laura Schroeder wrote:
    Great point that different management styles work with different people and that seniority is a key factor in appropriate style. The only thing worse than not giving a new person enough direction is giving a senior person too much.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/22/2010 10:00 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Laura. I don't think it's "seniority," though.


      You can delegate a task to anyone, regardless of seniority who has the ability to accomplish it and whom you can trust to do it on their own, without close direction or follow-up. You have to exercise more review/control over anyone, regardless of seniority who doesn't meet both those tests.

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  • 9/24/2010 1:38 AM Ann McKenzie wrote:
    Your delegation descriptions are an extremely helpful tool to understand the relationship between the parties. Delegation must fit both the individual and the task. A good manager uses all the options, growing the individual and themselves. Where as a manager who uses only "telling" and "discuss and tell" options is actually a micro-manager.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/24/2010 9:35 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Ann. I especially like your comment that the method should fit both the team member and the manager.

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  • 9/26/2010 9:53 PM Oren wrote:
    Thanks for the post, Wally.
    I think the importance of how a manager assigns work is often overlooked. It is so important to give an employee enough freedom that they feel in control of their tasks, but also enough guidance that any frustration is avoided. As a manager, you have to find a comfortable balance for each employee. You must understand that every employee has a different balance and needs to be treated accordingly. This is incredibly important to think about when it comes to assigning tasks.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/27/2010 6:06 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      I think it's more than just a balance for every team member, Oren. It's also a different balance for different tasks. In the same way that kids in school may be further advanced in math than in language skills, team members have different levels of ability on different key tasks. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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  • 2/25/2011 6:28 PM Daniel wrote:
    Thank you for the styles of delegating. I will share this with my management team and I am like many others who wish we would have had these in our own tool boxes. I manage an all volunteer organization that has a high turnover of college students who volunteer and most are the learning type of volunteers. I had a particular situation happen with someone that appeared reliable and knowledgeable and I had to leave for a family emergency and when I returned this Intern/volunteer was MIA because the management failed to stay in close contact during my absence and that project didn't get completed and it ended back on my desk as a problem. This would have saved many headaches, but hey it's all about teaching and learning right? Now I better evaluate the person to the desired outcomes. Then monitor closely until one has proven reliability. Thanks again!
    Reply to this
    1. 2/25/2011 9:49 PM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the kind words, Daniel. I hope this will help you and others in your organization.

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