When Delegation Becomes Abdication

| | Leading Organizations

Clearly there is a big difference between delegating and abdicating in definition.  However, all too often I see the two being confused in practice.  And when it does it is disempowering, ineffective, and degrades trust.  It also undermines our ability to hold people accountable with honor and respect which further undermines the health of our relationships and our organizations.

Here is an example of how I see this playing out.  Person A decides to give Person B a very important assignment.  A believes based on personal experience or some other input that B can be trusted to get the job done right.  A is relieved to finally have someone to delegate this to so they can focus on their very long list of other things to handle.  Because there is some foundation of trust, A assumes B knows what they need to deliver.  A also assumes that they have the same interpretation of both what success means and how it should be done in process and form.  And sometimes it really works this way.  It is effortless.  A gets their result with little effort or involvement required and B feels appreciated and empowered.  Trust is bolstered.  Life is good.

The problem is that once this way of operating has worked with one person we then believe that it should always work this way.  Unfortunately when things break down the “root causes” are quickly identified:  A is a lousy manager or B is not quite as good as I thought they were.   It becomes somehow personal and in the process we lose sight of how we actually unwittingly contributed to the breakdown to begin with.  In my experience this kind of breakdown is usually not because of evil intent of either party, but rather because of a lack of rigor and practice.

What is delegation?

It starts with making a clear and specific request.  What is the specific outcome or result you are asking someone to be accountable for delivering and by when?  What difference will producing that outcome make in the overall goals of your team, your company, your community?

Yet while many people think that is enough to ensure the desired outcome, I’ll suggest there is one more very important part of the delegation process:  negotiation.  If you want to delegate in a way that empowers people and fosters accountability you must take your request a step further by establishing clear minimum standards for declaring success both in terms of what must be accomplished as well as how it is accomplished.  Of course some things may not be negotiable, like the deadline, but in the conversation you will discover what is and what isn’t negotiable and actually determine the approach that is most workable.   Most importantly you will increase the odds that you have a mutual understanding of what success looks like.  And in the best case you establish a sense of joint ownership over success and satisfaction with both parties.

When does delegation degrade into abdication?

I tend to err on the side of believing people have good intentions and want to do a good job.  Most of the time, when people abdicate, it is not an intentional act, but rather a result of not being rigorous or mindful in how they delegate.  It becomes abdication when the person delegating relinquishes their responsibility for the outcome in some way rather than use delegation as an opportunity for partnership and empowerment.

There are many variations of what I consider to be “abdication” that masqeurade as delegation.  The most common form I see  is what I call the “lob”.  In fact it is the one that seems to catch the attention of most of my clients, even the ones who more often than not do a good job of delegating.

The Lob…

You need something done so you try to pass it off to someone without any rigor regarding what you need, why you need it and by when.  You hope for the best.  Often we do this with items on our to do list that may not be urgent but do need to get done.  They are also often seemingly simple things so you think the hand off should be really simple.  So you “lob” it over to someone, expecting they should just be able to catch it and run with it.  Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.  But consider of the cost of when they don’t.

What other ways do you think people abdicate in the name of delegation?  Please do share examples!


Enter A Comment

Gwyn Teatro   |   18 February 2010   |   Reply

I think that you have done a great job of highlighting the most important elements of successful delegation and your emphasis on negotiation is right on! So often we allow our assumptions to lead us around by the nose and then we are unreasonably surprised when our outcomes do not meet expectations.

I think too that it is tempting to “lob” assignments to others that we don’t fully understand ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we should know exactly how to execute an assignment before we delegate it, but we should have a good enough grasp on the concept; how it fits into the overall scheme of things; and a rough idea of what it might look like when its done right before we even think about delegating it.
Tossing someone an assignment that we don’t clearly understand holds great potential for failure and most certainly smacks of abdication to me.

Another great thought-provoking post, Susan.

Elliot Ross   |   19 February 2010   |   Reply

I second Gwyn’s comment!

I also find that a common cause of abdication is the fear or uncertainty of something that the individual does not understand.

Rather than questioning and researching – it is simply abdicated to that second party.

Susan Mazza   |   23 February 2010   |  

The cost of not being able to say I don’t know is high for everyone involved. Imagine how empowering it would be to someone to say I don’t know but I am sure you will be able to figure it out and explain it to me. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts Elliot.

Susan Mazza   |   23 February 2010   |   Reply

Great point Gwyn that we may lob not just to get something off our plate fast, but also when we don’t fully understand the assignment. Thanks for your insight Gwyn.

Lisa Hickey   |   21 February 2010   |   Reply

This post brings up all my fears of not being a good manager / leader. : )

I’ve seen many a well-meaning person say “but I’m too busy to delegate”. Or, “it’s quicker if I just do it myself.” And I think if they stepped back, and realized the steps they need to take to delegate effectively, there would be no doubt it was the right thing to do. The other thing I’ve seen in abdication vs. delegation is when person A gives the job to person B, and then makes it clear they have no further time – for questions, for help, for feedback when the task is completed. And finally, I think that anyone can benefit from your advice, Susan, about the *negotiation* part of the equation – realizing that you, as the person being delegate TO, should always have that option, would be empowering to all involved.

Susan Mazza   |   23 February 2010   |   Reply

I think you have just distinguished the worst kind of lob Lisa; when we disappear and/or fail to provide the feedback necessary for a satisfying completion.

That this post brings up your fear of not being a good manager/leader actually demonstrates your commitment to being one. Most people have room for us to be less than perfect if they know we are committed to them and to learning and getting better at what we do.

sholar banjur   |   11 March 2011   |   Reply

This is good for my job

Dan Mazur   |   24 April 2011   |   Reply

What a great little article. Far too often we see our leadership abdicating issues. This works out when the person is capable, knowledgable and has a vested interest in the outcome, but most times this isn’t the case. The ‘Lob’ happens more frequently than not and grows to become an embedded cultural problem within a corporation.

Susan Mazza   |   25 April 2011   |   Reply

Thanks Dan. Your last statement unfortunately rings true in my experience.

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