The Difficult Art of Delegating

Tom Peters

“Simple” delegation remains the most nettlesome problem a manager faces. Is delegation assigning a task to a subordinate and then washing your hands of it? Or should delegators assign a task, but insist that the subordinate submit a careful, step-by-step plan, which you both monitor together regularly?

The former method not only sounds silly, but seems like an abrogation of the boss’s responsibility. The latter method, indeed, conforms to the textbook definition of delegation. However, most delegators who follow the second, conventional path fail to achieve their true objective, because the subordinate fails to really catch fire. Why?

For a clue, let’s turn to British mystery writer P. D. James, who has been called the new Agatha Christie. An apparently innocuous passage from her current bestseller, A Taste for Death, reveals her keen management sense: “Dalgliesh had accepted that the agreement must be kept; [Kate Miskin] would meet Carole Washburn alone. He had given her no instruction and offered no advice. Other senior officers would have been tempted to remind her of the importance of the meeting, but this wasn’t his way. She respected him for it, but it increased her burden of responsibility. Everything might depend on how she handled the encounter.”

Adam Dalgliesh, James’ Sherlock Holmes, is an intellectual, respected senior detective. Kate Miskin is the only woman in his new, elite unit. Carole Washburn is a suspect.

This single paragraph in James’ novel reveals most of the attributes of successful delegation. First, Dalgliesh really did let go: At the most obvious level, he let relatively junior Miskin go alone to a crucial meeting. But two subtler levels of letting go are involved. Dalgliesh’s new, elite unit was formed over political objection. As the unit’s first visible case dragged on, the press and entrenched political enemies were quick to snipe at him. In this context, Dalgliesh’s permitting youthful Miskin to go ahead, alone, takes on added significance. Dalgliesh was risking internal scorn as well—the seasoned members of the team were already perturbed that he had appointed a relatively young woman. At the deepest, though seemingly most insignificant, level, he pointedly did not remind Miskin of the meeting’s importance, a fact that she is painfully aware of.

Dalgliesh’s second savvy delegation technique involves inspiring terror, along with pride, at being on his team. As a stern taskmaster who seldom offers praise, his standards are widely known to be Olympian.

When Dalgliesh allowed Miskin to attend the meeting, he reinforced his abiding faith in her. Dalgliesh is not sentimental, and certainly no closet feminist. He chose Miskin for his team, and early in her career at that, because he believed she was darned good.

We see the full-blown paradox of true delegation here. On the one hand, the boss let go: (1) he formally delegated an important task; (2) he stuck his neck way out by doing so; (3) he upped the ante substantially by pointedly not reminding her of all the

On the other hand, he hardly set her adrift: (1) he is a consummate professional who has made it clear that he entrusted Miskin because she’s talented; and (2) his standards are astonishingly high. Thus the granted autonomy is real and significant, but it does not induce anarchy—because the psychological pressure to perform up to one’s limit and to an absurdly high standard is monumental.

Bob Townsend, author of Up the Organization, offers another story: “You tell a guy to get on with it. He’s on his own. You make that clear. Two days later, on your way out at about seven in the evening, you poke your head into his office ever so briefly. You say, as a last, inadvertent aside, ‘Have you checked with Bernie about your plans?’ If you had stuck around another ten seconds to watch his reaction, you would have seen physical deflation, like a balloon when its air is let out. And his color fades, too. You just stole the whole blasted thing back from him, and in about five seconds at that. And worst of all, you didn’t mean it. Or even know it. For heaven’s sake, he would have checked with Bernie anyway!”

Our two stories suggest that true delegation requires crossing some psychological Maginot Line, which makes it real to the participants. They’re on their own, within the context of the standards you have set all along.

But the process is fragile. In James’ mystery novel, the clincher was not reminding someone that an important meeting was, in fact, important. In Townsend’s tale, the losing strategy was simply reminding someone of something they doubtlessly planned to do anyway.

My experience observing managers and acting as one myself squares with both stories. My most successful acts of delegation occurred only when circumstances, such as a serious automobile accident or a hectic travel schedule, forced me to let go. On the other hand, my biggest botches, despite my pure intentions, occurred when I only “sort of” let go, much like the manager in Townsend’s tale.

The textbook “let go and monitor regularly” strategy turns out to be the dumb one, if you want to energize subordinates. Yet the alternative, letting go and washing your hands of the task, is equally dumb.

Rather, the leader’s role is to intentionally create tension by really letting go, but only after you have instilled the highest standards of performance and adherence to a shared vision.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications

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