Knowing When to Delegate

My work provides me the opportunity to interact with a large number of highly motivated people who are eager to put their skills to use. Most are excellent individual contributors, but when it comes to managing others many of them struggle to know how to delegate.


The will/skill matrix is a helpful framework when leading a team or managing others. The two dimensions of “will” and “skill” can help you understand which tasks are appropriate for delegation.

“Will” speaks to an individual's motivation, commitment, and confidence in their ability to complete the task. “Skill’ speaks to an individual’s knowledge, ability, and competency as it relates to specific tasks. Let’s briefly explore each quadrant.


Guide

Employees who are highly motivated but less experienced with certain tasks will likely need a guide. New employees will often fall in this quadrant when faced with new tasks. They need your help developing new skills. This could involve you providing training or making training resources available.


Direct

A new employee who isn’t confident in their ability and who hasn’t had experience in a given task will need you to direct them. Employees will require you to be more specific and concrete in your direction on tasks where they have little interest and lower competency.


Excite

Employees who repeat the same task at high frequencies may need you to excite them. When their skills are not the issue, more training is not the solution. Instead, take time to understand what motivates them and recognize that different employees are motivated by different things.


Delegate

When an employee is highly skilled and motivated to complete a task, you should delegate. Think of delegation as a spectrum with “micromanage” at one end and “hands off” at the other. Don’t confuse delegation with being hands off. Delegation requires defining the task and its scope, communicating expectations, and clarifying how often you both require feedback.


Think About Delegation at the Task Rather Than Employee Level

The problem many managers experience is that they make assumptions about delegation at the employee level rather than the task level. For example, when Max hired Victoria he knew her interpersonal communication skills would be an asset to his organization. A good portion of her job involves interacting with internal and external stakeholders, and she excels at tasks where she is able to put her communication skills to use. Another part of her job requires project management skills. She is highly motivated to complete these tasks, but she doesn’t have experience in this area.


Max takes pride in not being a micromanager, but he mistakenly assumed Victoria had the will and skill to be delegated all tasks related to this position. Delegation was the right choice for the interpersonal communication tasks where Victoria has high will and skill. But guiding would be more appropriate for the project management tasks.


As you consider the will and skill of your employees, avoid thinking about employees as people you can or can’t delegate to. In other words, avoid thoughts like, “I feel comfortable delegating to her” or “He isn’t someone I can delegate to.” Instead, the decision about delegation should be made at the task level. For example, you might think, “This is a task I can delegate to her” or “He is not yet ready for me to delegate this responsibility.” Adapting your approach to the situation will allow you to give the right level of support to your team at the right time.



Resources


The Situational Leadership Theory has evolved since Hersey and Blanchard first introduced the idea in 1969. For updated thinking on this topic, see Blanchard, Zigarmi, & Zigarmi (2013). Leadership and the One Minute Manager: A Situational Approach to Leading Others. William Morrow.



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