Delegation, it doesn’t just go down.


Seasoned PEP® practitioners will know that one of the four D’s which guide your actions is Delegation. When I am coaching clients on the four D’s I always hold my breath a little on this one as the mixes of emotions begin to show in their eyes. Unfortunately, this is a problematic word that comes with a lot of baggage. People have had bad experiences with delegation when everything has been dumped on them, or they have tried to delegate only to find that the work done is not up to their standard or they have completely lost track of what they have delegated. More often then not I see people simply at a loss of how delegation even works as they don’t think it applies to them. These are all valid concerns; for delegation to work you need to know:

  • How to decide what to delegate (and why you won’t do it)
  • How to actually delegate (it’s not just telling someone to do something)
  • How to keep track of delegated activities (and when to let go)
  • Who to delegate to (it’s not just down)

The first three points are deep topics in themselves, so for now let’s focus on the who. Often people feel delegation is a one-way road, and that road is from top to bottom. The top makes a decision; tells the person below to execute. This is the first a misconception of what delegation is. Deciding and telling someone to execute is giving orders. Delegation means taking a task that has come to you, for whatever reason, and handing that task over to someone else, for whatever reason. That means that decisions which come with that task are also no longer entirely owned by the first person, if at all. Making decisions is intrinsic to that task, so if you find the task is important enough to your goals that you need to make a decision entirely on your own, then maybe it is a task which is important enough for you to do yourself. Handing it over someone else means handing over those decisions that comes with the task, in part or in entirety. If you have done your homework correctly, the person you are handing the task over to will find the task important enough to their goals that they will gladly invest in those decisions and be competent enough to carry it out. If that’s not the case, is the task even important enough for anyone to do, perhaps it can be simply deleted?

Horizontal delegation

The second misconception about delegation is that the movement is vertical. It is not, in fact if you look closely at how organization work you will find that most delegation (not order giving) is horizontal, between people in the same team or between teams themselves. When I am coaching people who consider themselves at the bottom of hierarchies, or ‘non-managers’, they often say ‘I have no one to delegate to’. No one works alone! It is simply a question of unburdening oneself from the preconception of delegation as order giving and understanding what it really is: finding something on your plate that is not of critical importance to your goals and that someone else would be far more competent and engaged if it coincides with their goals. This of course requires that you know a little something of the people you work with, it pays to understand your colleagues for a smooth running organization.

Delegating up

By the same logic, tasks can be delegate upwards. This sounds counter intuitive because the ‘de’ in delegate comes from the Latin ‘down’. It also sounds scary to some as not everyone is comfortable with giving their superior more work, and honestly some bosses are just really bad at taking any kind of direction. Most people will have heard of the skill of ‘managing up’, and it is broadly the same. It does require the same knowledge of other people and the organization’s goals in general that make horizontal delegation effective. The biggest difference is that the communication (or politics) can be more sensitive, especially if you don’t have such a close relationship with that superior. However, when brought properly, that superior may be happy the task came to them. “Look, I found this on my desk but it seemed so crucial to your goals and of such sensitive nature that I thought you would prefer taking this on personally.”

They just might thank you.

Master PEP Coach, Fabio Luelmo

PEP® is a registered trademark, owned and licensed by IBT Europe BV. 

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