Leadership, Training & Development

Management 101: The Key to Delegating? It’s Failure

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Delegating is not just about assigning work.

Delegating is about making sure that the right work gets done at the right level, and making your team more capable.

As a leader, you always need to think about building a more capable team.

Building capability requires learning — and there is no learning as great as that which comes after failing.

Don’t take away the motivation to learn

Many managers treat delegating exactly the opposite – that their role is to prevent failure — to watch closely, to jump in and take over, fix, or modify if it is not going well.

If you think about this from a learning perspective, what you have just done is to ensure that no real learning occurs.

Think about the alternative — throwing someone in the deep end…

When you fail, it feels bad. It is embarrassing. It causes business problems, It causes trouble for other people — so it becomes a big personal motivator to fix it!

Pain of failure = motivation to get it right

Real learning occurs when you not only see what you did wrong, but need to live with, and deal with the consequences of what you did wrong.

If you take away the pain of failing, you also take away the big, highly personal, motivator to get it right.

By creating the safety net, and filling in all the hard parts for them, they never really experience what it means to succeed.

But if you let a smart person fail, they will figure it out.

Isn’t that how you got good at what you do? By doing it. Trial and error. Feedback. Trying again? They will learn how to really do it if you give them a chance.

If they never learn, you never build capability, and you get stuck working evening and weekends to “cover” for the fact that your team is not capable of the work it needs to deliver.

Don’t put limits on learning

If you always step in you are ensuring that they will never get any better at the task then you are.

You are putting an artificial cap on their development. I have often delegated things that I thought I was pretty good at, and had my employee blow me away with their ability to exceed my capabilities.

This, to me, is one of the best parts of management. When you can say, “Wow, that’s amazing. You did that better than I ever imagined it could be done. Bravo. Thank you. Look at this new capability my team now has!”

If you are threatened by the thought of your employees being better than you, don’t be. You will get more points for breeding star performers than you will ever get for work you do personally. Read this if you don’t believe me.

Fail small or fail big

OK, so admittedly this is a bit of a paradox — how do you succeed when your people are failing?

Think ahead to the desired outcome. Today your team can’t do the work as well as you can, so you have two choices:

  1. Do it yourself and prevent your team from growing, or,
  2. Take some risk in the short term, and in a year from now, have a team that can do more than you ever imagined.

Pick your battles

Don’t pick the most business critical deliverable and put it with the most junior person, but do pick a meaty task and let a smart person who can learn something run with it.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to let people own outcomes and learn in the process. Not everything important is mission critical. It is your job to manage all the outcomes so that you create the space and opportunity for people to fail, learn, succeed and grow, while at the same time managing the overall outcome to create success.

Ideas to create learning when delegating:

Trust people

You will be amazed at how far some trust and encouragement goes (as compared to micro-managing). Set a really clear desired outcome for the task, and then ask them to give you a plan which includes checkpoints and what you will measure them on to ensure progress.

This encouragement and trust gives them huge ownership in making it happen. They will be personally motivated to try harder than if you try and control everything along the way.

Create review boards

If you are concerned that the deliverables are not going to be good enough, arrange some review boards instead of always picking apart people’s work personally.

If someone is creating a marketing campaign, have one of the measures be that three of the most cranky, difficult sales people have to say it’s “OK” before they bring it to you.

That is a very practical, contained failure opportunity, which will help the person learn way more than you saying, “it’s not good enough, let me fix it.”

Create smaller, intermediate outcomes

If you are too concerned that a failure will be too big, pick a smaller objective and a target closer in so that you can see if things are on track or not.

Giving someone a set of sequential outcomes and challenges to pursue is far more motivating than spelling out every activity and packing their lunch every day. Let them fly solo on shorter flights then help pick up the pieces only when necessary.

Always be teaching

You may think that letting someone fail is more discouraging and de-motivating than preventing it. But just think about yourself. How do you feel when your manager starts doing your job for you? Or, tells you that you’re not doing it right? Is that really more motivating than being given the space to figure things out for yourself, and really learn?

When someone fails, offer to answer questions and provide support, but have them own the learning process. You can re-iterate the goals and continue to clarify the outcome.

The big idea to remember

You can answer questions about or even comment on the fact that there is a gap between what they produced and the agreed desired outcome. But make their job to fix it and get it right.

If you are the one to fix it — you will always be the one to fix it.

That’s the big idea: If you are the one to fix it — you will always be the one to fix it.

You will be stuck and you will have failed BIG by not building a team capable of the work that needs to get done.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .