Critical skills for the workplace: Delegation and empowerment

09 June 2020 by Heidi Marshall

The impact of coronavirus has forced many L&D teams and business leaders to re-evaluate the skills and behaviours they must nurture if they are to recover and rebuild. Delegation and empowerment are emerging as a top priority for leaders of high performing remote teams.

Delegation. When the right tasks are delegated to the right people, a manager has more time to focus on areas that are more important or more suited to their skillset. It also fulfils part of their duty as a manager to develop their teams, allowing them to gain new skills and the exposure to higher levels of the organisation that is necessary for succession planning.

Empowerment is the process through which employees are given greater discretion to make decisions without the immediate approval of their managers. The belief is that workers’ abilities and talents are underemployed because they are not sufficiently engaged in their work.

Why is effective delegation so useful right now?

For those who, over the last few months, have been taking on increased workloads, covering for furloughed colleagues, adjusting to sharing a makeshift workspace at home or doing a very different job to before the crisis, delegation will have been a critical tool in their box. It enables busy managers to focus their attention where it’s really needed, whilst freeing up time for initiatives that stretch and develop their capabilities.

It also forms part of their duty as a manager to develop their team members, allowing them to gain new skills and the exposure to higher levels of the organisation that is necessary for succession planning. This is where the concept of empowerment comes into play. Handled correctly, engaging your staff with more challenging work that falls outside their routine responsibilities will motivate and empower them. In a world where remote management has been catapulted into the norm, delegation is an even more valuable skill.

The difference between empowerment and delegation

Whilst defensive managers will fear that greater employee involvement might reduce their power and responsibility, effective managers will build the trust and provide the support necessary to bring about increased employee involvement in their department’s functions. But it is not simply enough to delegate more, and, in fact, overzealous delegation might even be counterproductive and stifle true employee empowerment.

Flecker and Hofbauer observed that organisations tend to engage in the rhetoric of empowerment when, in fact, individual employees are “surrounded by guiding mechanisms that are more than an organisation’s safety net. Rather, they constitute a recycled iron cage.”

In other words, managers worried about maintaining control will lay down strict conditions for the responsibilities that they are prepared to devolve or delegate. This does not motivate team members to fully use their skills.

How to confidently delegate

Delegation, like many management best practices, is a skill that can be learnt. It takes practice, but working through the following principles is a good start.

Delegate the right tasks

  1. Carry out critical tasks yourself
  2. Delegate what others can do better
  3. Clearly specify the activity, desired outcomes, constraints and boundaries
  4. Don’t split tasks

Choose the right person for the job

  1. Identify the amount of responsibility and authority needed
  2. Match knowledge, skills and experience to the task
  3. Don’t just use whoever’s free
  4. Provide support and training
  5. Empower employees through open discussion
  6. Delegate to the lowest possible organisational level

Communicate the task

  1. Match you style of delegation to your team
  2. Inexperienced employees require detailed advice
  3. Experienced staff should be managed by objectives
  4. Very experienced staff need only a friendly chat

Agree the amount of authority and responsibility

  1. Define the scope of decision-making to be delegated
  2. Trust them
  3. Inform relevant parties
  4. Let them do it their way

Agree overall deadline, interim milestones and review dates

  1. Don’t do this informally
  2. Maintain purpose and importance of the task
  3. Monitoring is not a lack of trust
  4. Don’t split tasks

Avoid upward delegation

  1. Don’t let employees shirk responsibility
  2. Provide support
  3. Use a questioning approach
  4. They must learn or leave

Schedule time to review

  1. Only accept complete and good quality work
  2. Inadequate work must be improved
  3. Invest time now to gain time in the long run

Are the members of your team genuinely empowered?

To what extent is employee empowerment already in effect within your department and how much scope is there for further empowerment?

You might start by carrying out a job analysis to compare formal job roles against what your team members actually do. Then conduct a skills audit to assess whether the skills, qualifications, experience, attributes and other talents of your employees are being fully employed. Are there areas of work in which certain employees might wish to take responsibility? Recognise that empowerment may not be viewed positively by all. Some specialists with a very narrow job role may not see it as an enriching experience, but rather as a dilution of their focus.

Even once the appropriate support and training has been provided, be aware that empowered employees will probably do things differently, in a way that may well be unproductive at first. A strong manager will resist the temptation to take over and solve the problems themselves. Accept that initially a period of learning and development must take place. The focus here is to keep the dynamic in a positive light and to avoid apportioning blame. But remember, this is not a free-for-all with anybody performing whatever tasks they want. You should set clear boundaries and guidelines as to which areas of the team’s functions you would like them to explore.

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