Why managers sometimes find it hard to delegate

It has been called “hovering”, “micromanaging”, “over-the shoulder management”, and my recent favorite – “bird dogging.”  Whatever you call it, lacking delegation skills often has negative long-term outcomes.  Some employees are left with a feeling of not being trusted, feeling marginalized, insignificant, and under-developed.  We all know how it feels when we are micromanaged or not delegated to, so why is the shift do difficult?

Many supervisors are promoted from the ranks and now supervise the same tasks they used to do.  While familiarity and comfort are often reasons supervisors hang on to certain tasks, there is also something else.  Chances are, they were promoted because they were among the best (if not THE best) at performing the tasks.  This can often send a subtle message to the newly promoted that “their way” was the “right way”.

Now, we all know that with many tasks there are multiple ways to get to a certain outcome.  The trouble with the above scenario is a supervisor no longer focuses on the right outcome; instead they focus on the “right way”.  It is not their fault.  The system has told them “their way” was best.  So naturally, in effort to help their employees perform better, a supervisor wants to teach them the “right way” (aka. “their way”) causing all sorts of trust issues on both sides

So here is a possible exercise that may help.  First, analyze the intended outcome.  What are the criteria of a finished product that satisfy the business need: What information does it contain?  What does it look like?  Is there a concern with flow? How many people need to be involved?  How long should it take? Etc.  Saying you’ll “know it when you see it” rarely provides guidance.  I liken it to asking for a ride somewhere and telling the person “I know the house.”  Taking time to step back a really articulate how you know a job is complete and adequate can save a lot of frustration and time spent on the back –end.  As we say in our department, “pay now, or pay later.”

The more specific you can be about the outcome, the less specific you need to be about the process.  And here is the hard part, when someone fails to deliver what you need – it often has less to do with them not knowing how, and more to do with a misunderstanding about the outcome.  If you are the supervisor and you know the outcome you want, the majority of that communication lies on your shoulders.  Spend more time articulating the expected outcome and less time telling people “your way”.  It will be less frustrating and more rewarding for both supervisor and employee.


7 thoughts on “Why managers sometimes find it hard to delegate

  1. Nice write-up Dave…I think the Peter Principle comes into play often in addition to lack of basic communication skills (which you stated).

    What does the literature say?


    • Kyle, Interestingly enough, some recent coaching research by BlessingWhite (Coaching Conundrum 2009) supports that managers “worry about having all the answers” but the research also indicates that most employees “aren’t looking for advice”. I agree the Peter Principle applies and many managers are promoted to their level of incompetence, but I do not think it is intentional. I think it is a failing of measurement systems and cultural embodiment of organizations to reward personal performance instead of team performance. Of course there are many other things that make delegation difficult for supervisors and ego is just one thing that gets in the way.

  2. Hey Dave, thanks for mentioning our research!
    I totally agree with your point of view. We actually use a model called “The Funnel” to describe this challenge. The idea is that managers need to stay on the rim, providing the “whats,” while the team member owns the “how” — processing the “whats” with his or her expertise in his or her funnel. You might want to check out an animated description of this on our home page http://www.blessingwhite.com.

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  4. i think ego is the main reason why managers find it hard to delegate

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