Delegating Effectively: It’s Not Tennis

If I’m delegating effectively, why do I always seem to have the ball?

We all know that as leaders we need to delegate effectively.  As one boss even told me, “You have to delegate or die!” But sometimes it can seem like that ball keeps bouncing back into your hands.

You start to wonder, what’s the point of delegating if I still end up doing all the work?  I think it all has to do with understanding what game you are playing.

Delegating Effectively - It's Not Tennis

Thank You, Mr. Helper

My problem is that I always want to help.  Especially in my early days as a leader.  I had this idea that a caring, compassionate leader wasn’t afraid to jump in and help out at the front lines, and seek ways to make things easier for the team.

That approach was good, most of the time.  It helped me build experience, develop credibility, and earn trust.  But one time when it wasn’t helpful was when delegating.

Armed with the right kind of task to delegate, I’d give them the ball, and they’d get to work.

Then, trying to be a good leader, I’d check in with them to see how they were doing.  I’d ask open ended questions to see what challenges they were facing, and if they needed any help from me.

And that’s when I’d go wrong.

Playing the Wrong Game

In response to my questions, there were often requests coming back.  “I’m making progress, but just need some X.” Or, “If I could get a decision on Y, we’d be able to proceed” or “If you could take care of this thing Z, we can move to the next step.”

And before I knew it, I was playing tennis.

They had served the ball back to me.  And now with the ball on my side of the court, I had to focus on it, move to it, do something with it.

It was on me to take care of X, Y, and Z.

The Problem with Tennis

So I’d do the thing: get permissions, reallocate resources, make a decision, come up with an idea.  And then I’d send the ball back their way.

But before long, here comes the ball again, and I find myself running after it.  At the time, I thought of it as involved, caring leadership.  But that’s not what it was.

Tennis is a great sport, but it’s not a good approach to delegating effectively.  Here’s why.

Bottleneck.  If the task keeps bouncing back to you, you become the bottle neck, and progress slows.  The more tasks, the worse it can become.

Distraction.  When you are constantly returning balls, you aren’t doing the other things you should be, like planning, developing, supervising, and resourcing.

Missed opportunity.  When you are too involved, it deprives the person you tasked of a growth opportunity and a chance to learn from the experience.

Diminished trust.  Constant meddling signals a lack of trust, and fosters frustration.

Disengagement.  The more you take the ball, the more the results are not their own.  The less they feel they can influence the outcome, the more they disengage.

Reverse delegation.  Playing tennis invites what Dan Rockwell calls Reverse Delegation.  The tasks flow backwards from them to you.  They begin to define what you do, and when you do it. Their success becomes dependent on your actions.

Accountability issues. It’s difficult to hold someone accountable for something when the ball has been on your side of the court half the time.  As accountability slips, team effectiveness nosedives.

Play a Different Game

Don’t play tennis.  Play football – it’s a much better game when it comes to delegating effectively.

First, organize the team.  Set the play.  Marshall the blockers and clarify responsibilities.  Then hand off the ball.

As Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership advises, choose someone who has both the ability and willingness to do the job.

Set clear expectations: tasks, outcomes, due dates.

Set milestones and check-in points.

Connect them to training and resources they may need.

Give them the responsibility to do the job and the authority to make the necessary decisions to get it done.

Know what’s going on, stay interested and aware.

But, as J. Keith Murninghan says in his book Do Nothing, get out of your own way.

When they pull out their tennis racket, help them understand that’s not the sport you are in.

When they come with an issue, ask them how they think they can solve the problem, and let them.

Don’t do things for them that they can do themselves. Yes, you want the task done, but you are also training them in the process.

Remind them this is a learning and growth opportunity for them.

Ask them what steps they (not “we”) plan to take next.

Be willing to accept something that isn’t done exactly as you would have done it.  If it meets those initial expectations, it’s good.

It’s OK to work in parallel to support them at your level.  Ultimately success or failure still rests on your shoulders, and the idea is to set everyone up to be successful.  Always do what’s necessary to support them. They need to know you have their back.

But don’t let their next move become dependent on you.  Once they begin, they should be masters of their own fate.

Delegating Effectively – The Takeaway

Delegating effectively means giving them the ball, and letting them run.  Sometimes it means making them run.

Don’t let them send it back to you.  It’s not tennis.

The ball has to go forward, towards the goal, not back and forth across a net.

When they understand that the ball is theirs to keep, they will become better runners.

They will face ahead instead of back.  They will find new ways to gain ground.

And as they advance the ball, you can already be thinking about the next play.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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