One of the most challenging skill sets of any good manager is delegation. We often hear even experienced managers talk about how it is just easier to do it yourself than to delegate work to another person. Sometimes, managers even use the concept of servant leadership as a reason not to delegate. Many managers take great pride in saying they are “working managers” who are not afraid to work side by side with their employees and even perform menial tasks just to show their employees they are willing and supportive.
All of this is good, but sometimes managers forget a fundamental motivator for every human on the planet: autonomy. Simply put, autonomy is about volition or choice. We are hardwired to want to make an impact on the world around us through what we do, not what other people do. We want to know that the choices we make on a daily basis make a difference.
Our natural desire for autonomy creates two problems for managers.
- We Want to Do it All - While it seems selfless on the surface for a manager to want to take on responsibility and add things to their own plate, it is actually selfish. Managers who don’t delegate might think they are doing it for their people, but actually they are doing it for themselves.
- We Don’t Acknowledge that Other People Want Autonomy - Managers who don’t delegate are forgetting that everyone on their team ultimately wants the ability to make some choices. They want to take on more responsibility, even if they aren’t aware of it yet.
During the early stages of the pandemic when the world was effectively shut down, I felt a strong desire to make good decisions that would ensure the future of our team and the company. I worked hard thinking about contingencies, new products, and actions we could take to support our clients through the difficult times. Initially, I did a lot of this work on my own.
After a few weeks, I started to feel a little resentful of our team. I was working very hard and it didn’t seem like anyone else cared as much as a I did about what we needed to do. I started to feel alone. The peak occurred during a weekend when I had spent an entire Saturday working on a new product idea when another problem arose. I was frustrated and I started to fire off a nasty email to my team. Fortunately, I caught myself.
Instead of firing off a nasty email, I held a meeting on Monday. I talked about the challenges we were facing and then asked a simple question: Who has a good idea?
Our team very quickly leaned in. They came up with ideas and took on tasks and ran with them. They produced a lot of very high quality work in a short amount of time. We met frequently to share progress and sometimes adjust our course, but our team came together brilliantly.
It was then that I realized something important. Delegation wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to get things “off my plate” by giving it to other people. Instead, I needed everything our team had to offer.
I realized that it wasn’t my plate.
As a leader, I was well meaning. I wanted to help my team. I wanted to solve problems. I wanted to help “my team”. However, I have found that it is much more powerful to think differently.
As a leader, it’s not “my team”, it’s our team (I still slip up on this from time to time). It’s not getting things off my plate, because it’s our team.
When issues arise, my job is to bring it to our team for discussion and ideas. Sometimes I am the one who has to (and should) make the decision, but the more autonomy our team feels, the more ownership they feel. When it’s my plate, I have to figure out how to get others to do what I need them to do. When it’s our plate, they are actively thinking about what needs to be done and doing it themselves.
If you struggle with delegation, remember everyone’s basic desire for autonomy and try sharing the plate. Sometimes people will make bad decisions, but they will own those decisions and learn from their mistakes.
As a leader, it is much more rewarding to see a team developing themselves and finding their own path than it is to manage a to-do list.