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Managing ‘upwards’

Marion Haynes-Barker, Head, Technical Assistance Unit, The Productivity Council

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Delegation is a tool that when used, can either enhance or undermine a manager’s effectiveness. When delegation is done well, a manager is praised for his ability to get the best out of his people.  However, when delegation is done poorly, the manager is criticised for his inability to use his human resources effectively. 
This challenges the very core of effective management which advocates working with and through others to achieve desired outcomes. Questions managers should therefore ask themselves are “what are the signs of ineffective delegation?” and, “how do I overcome these barriers?” 
Realistically, the source of why a manager does not delegate effectively might be difficult to determine since the ineffectiveness may not solely be the fault of the manager but the subordinate(s) might also be guilty of transgressions. 
There are many symptoms of ineffective managerial delegation, specifically, failure to define the task and corresponding resources required, failure to correctly assess abilities and thus select the wrong individual or team, failure to agree on deadlines and offer support, and finally, failure to communicate and provide feedback throughout the process, and on results.
The following are common barriers to effective delegation, to which, as managers, we often fall victim: “I can do it myself” syndrome, fear of losing control, lack of confidence in subordinates or co-team members, lack of experience in the job or in delegating, viewing the development of subordinates as a threat, and fear of taking perceived risks, and of failure.
Managing the way you receive and agree to carry out delegated tasks is one of the central skills of “managing upwards”. To clarify the purpose and expectations of an assignment it is necessary to ask questions, offer suggestions, determine follow-up procedures and essentially communicate that you understand the assignment.  Similarly, where you identify shortcomings in your skills, ask for needed training and summarise the assignment to ensure that both you and the delegator agree on the end result.
Remember, there is a wide range of autonomy that can be conferred on you as an individual, which relates to how a delegated task will be completed. This will ultimately determine the overall success of the delegation process and your achievement of the objectives.
Delegated authority can range from full to virtually zero autonomy, that is, from essentially being told, “This is your area of responsibility now” to the other end of the spectrum, which is being told “Please follow these instructions precisely”. 
Ultimately, there are many variations that can be applied to granting authority. For example, a manager can instruct a direct report to “look at a project and summarise the situation”. From this a recommendation can be made by the manager for the report to solely give instructions going forward or alternatively to make recommendations collaboratively with the manager. 
Other variations in granting authority include: “Give me your analysis of the situation (reasons, options, pros and cons) and recommendations, I’ll let you know whether you can go ahead.”  Or “decide and take action: Let me know what you did and what happened.”
At this level, as with each, granted authority increases up the scale and saves the manager increasingly more time.  This level of delegation also enables a degree of follow-up by the manager as to the effectiveness of the delegated responsibility. Even though more “freedom” is granted, feedback is still important although the relationship is more likely one of mentoring rather than coaching.
The act (art?) of delegation is a win-win when done appropriately. Experts often recommend that for every five important tasks managers have to tackle, three should be delegated. (Managers, remember that you are experts in your field so bear in mind that where the delegate is new to the task, he or she may take comparatively more time to complete the assignment). 
To reiterate, effective delegation facilitates succession planning and enables employee development and job promotion. It ultimately assists employees with personal growth and reaching their full potential, and for the forward-thinking organisation goes a long way towards building a culture of accountability and success.