I used to think of delegation as giving work to someone else. Over time I came to realize that delegation is much more and that there is a process with four distinct phases.

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First Phase: Direct Instruction

When providing Direct Instruction, tell the person doing the work exactly what they need to do and how to do it. This is a simple delegation of a typically simple task. Your expectation, as the person delegating the work, is that the work gets done.

Example: I worked at a local grocery store. One night the stock manager assigned me the task of keeping the dairy case full. Among my other duties while at work, I was given direct instructions to check the dairy case and keep it full. When the milk got low, I was to go to the back cooler and refill the stock of milk in the dairy case.

Second Phase: Investigate and Propose

Investigate and Propose is more appropriate with experienced workers. This phase increases responsibility for the person doing the work while the person delegating the work maintains the authority to make decisions. Specifically, the person doing the work gathers information, provide options, and proposes what they think is the best option.

Example: In my early professional career, I worked weekends at a call center with a rotating schedule. I quickly elevated to minor leadership among the weekend staff. The weekend manager asked me to create a shift rotation that met the needs of the staff while covering the business’ planned call volume. I collected schedule requests from the staff, matched it up against the call volume reports, and proposed one of two designs to the weekend manager. The weekend manager reviewed the proposed weekend schedule and decided which schedule to use.

Third Phase: Act and Report

At some point, a manager simply needs the person they are delegating work to Act and Report. This is when the person doing the work has ownership to take appropriate action and update the manager on progress. The manager needs to be in the know about progress being made but is not actively directing work decisions. Once the work is complete the person delegated the work simply reports the results to the manager.

Example: A colleague of mine and I were granted a project to replace a nine-year-old information system with a new state-of-the-art knowledge management program. We earned credibility in past successful smaller projects and were basically granted to the right to do what it takes to implement the new program. At key times we reported to the entire management team our milestone successes until the project was complete.

Fourth Phase: Complete Hand-off

The ultimate delegation is a Complete Hand-off. In this phase of delegation, the person doing the work has complete ownership to make all decisions necessary to complete the work. There is no need to give updates to the manager or explain what has been done. In this phase of delegation, the person doing the work has received complete trust to do what they feel necessary to complete the work.

Example: After completing the implementation of the knowledge management program, there was a need for continual maintenance and improvement to meet the needs of the department. I was asked to take on a new role as the manager of the knowledge management program. I had complete decision-making authority to make any decisions necessary to maintain and improve the program.

When progressing through these four phases, the driving factor that allows someone to go to the next phase is trust.

As trust increases the person doing the work can go to the next phase of delegation.

Some leaders I work with get this wrong because they jump too quickly to an advanced phase when trust has not been established by the person doing the work. The best way to earn this kind of trust, is to create a pattern of success in lower level phases of delegation.

What work have you delegated recently? What phase of delegation did you use?

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The New Leaders Guide to Delegation and Accountability

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