Clarity is crucial when leaders assign work to others

Do you find yourself often performing work that others can and should be doing? “Charlie” is reviewing his list of items that need to be completed before he leaves the following day on a weeklong trip. “Drat,” he says as he remembers that he promised his best customer a proposal that is due the day after he returns. “What a great opportunity to delegate to Vic,” he thinks.

Charlie hastily explains the proposal’s requirements. Vic, sensing that Charlie is in a hurry, accepts the assignment even though he does not fully understand the customer’s request. He rationalizes that he will figure it out later and use this opportunity to showcase his talents.

One week later Charlie returns from his trip, and Vic proudly hands him the completed proposal. After a quick review, Charlie is shocked and disappointed. It is nothing close to what the customer wanted, and the price is ridiculously inflated.

Charlie wondered how Vic’s results could be so dramatically different from what he had expected. He assumed that Vic knew the customer and their needs as well as he did and understood that the proposal would not only guarantee continued business with this customer, but that the new service could be sold to other clients as well.

Since the proposal is due the next day, Charlie realizes that he must work all night to revise it. As he wonders how he is going to tell his wife he will not be home for dinner as promised, Charlie has an insight. Instead of delegating responsibility to Vic, he abdicated it.

Delegation is the assignment of authority and responsibility to another person to carry out specific activities. The person who delegated the work still remains accountable for the outcome and needs to periodically check in and review progress. Abdication is a formal resignation and renunciation of all authority.

Abdicating responsibility creates many problems. One of the most dangerous is making the abdicator believe that only he is capable of performing important work, even if the result is working longer hours.

By rushing through his original assignment to Vic, Charlie sent him the message: “Here is a vague assignment. Figure out what I really want, and then do it well.” Other than hiring clairvoyant employees, Charlie needs to follow a thoughtful and clear delegation process, like this one:

Step 1: Clearly describe the assignment, including the desired outcome and background information.

Step 2: Identify the appropriate person for the assignment.

Step 3: Create a timeline for milestones and completion.

Step 4: Determine what level of authority to authorize. Either: 1) recommend, 2) act and then inform or 3) act without informing.

Step 5: Verify that the delegate understands the assignment.

Step 6: Schedule meetings as necessary to check progress or to provide coaching.

Step 7: Debrief.

Which are you doing: abdicating or delegating?

Cheryl B. McMillan is Chair, Northeast Ohio, at Vistage International