3 Rules of delegation every manager should follow

Robert Glazer

Robert GlazerRobert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, a global partner marketing agency and the recipient of numerous industry and company culture awards. He is the author of the inspirational newsletter Friday Forward and international bestselling author of four books: ElevateFriday ForwardHow To Thrive In The Virtual Workplace and Performance Partnerships. He is also the host of The Elevate Podcast.

Recently, I spoke to a group of new managers at our company about the crucial lessons I’ve learned in my own leadership journey. At the top of the list was learning to delegate. 

I still remember how, in the early years of the business, I was in charge of nearly every function and struggled to let go. It was exhausting. 

I have seen this same theme crop up repeatedly at our company: virtually all our new managers struggle with delegation. Intuitively, this makes sense; before becoming a manager, an employee works as an individual contributor and is rewarded for being a reliable, trustworthy and productive team member

For managers, however, success is much less about the work they do and more about the performance of their team. Great managers lead others to do great work, rather than doing everything themselves.

Making this shift requires a change in muscle memory, and I find that most new managers inevitably fall into one of two traps. They may fail to delegate, jumping in to solve problems for their team, completing every task themselves and suffocating their team with micromanagement. Or, by contrast, they may delegate without setting proper expectations or providing clear instructions, then expect things to turn out exactly as they would have done it themselves. 

What’s even more problematic is that new managers often find themselves vacillating between these two pitfalls. If a manager delegates without clear guidelines and receives unwanted outcomes as a result, they may snap back to the mode of doing things themselves. They’ll justify this by saying, “See, if I don’t do it, it won’t get done correctly.” This creates a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. 

There are three rules of delegation every manager, especially every new manager, should follow to avoid these traps. 

  1. Follow the 85 percent rule. If you delegate tasks and expect them to be done exactly how you want them, you will be disappointed. I have always emphasized that a win in delegation is when something is done about 85 percent the way you would have done it, without you having to be involved. It’s counterproductive to be frustrated at that remaining 15 percent, as everyone has their own style and way of doing things. 
  2. Proper delegation requires more upfront work. With delegation, things often get harder before they get easier.  You need to put in the upfront work to train, clarify and set expectations for the outcomes you need your team to achieve. This often requires having employees shadow you and teaching them how to do something correctly. This can be challenging when you need others to take things off your plate, but if you try to skip this step, you won’t even get 85 percent of what you want—and you’ll be back to square one. 
  3. Allow above-the-waterline mistakes. People are going to make mistakes as they learn; ideally, you want those to happen in practice sessions or behind the scenes. In service industries in particular, it can be painful to let people make client-facing mistakes, as these may jeopardize client relationships. However, those errors are often the best teachers and can often lead to better future outcomes.

The best analogy is to think about the waterline on a ship. Damage above the waterline won’t sink the ship and is reparable. Damage below the waterline can sink the ship and bring everything down with it. Great managers minimize below-the-waterline mistakes and get comfortable letting their teams make above-the-waterline mistakes. While the latter are uncomfortable for everyone, they are also a necessary part of learning, letting go and creating accountability. 

One of the definitions of a great leader is someone who inspires and empowers others to do their best work, which requires knowing when to delegate and how to do it well. I can tell you from my own experience that while this certainly isn’t easy, it is necessary. 

This post originally appeared on Robert Glazer’s Friday Forward newsletter and is reprinted here with permission.

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