After winning a promotion and moving into a new department, Lisa A. Bing could be found in her office on most nights well past midnight. She was a new manager faced with new demands and a new staff. “I thought I had to figure it all out on my own and had the belief that if I asked for help, it would be seen as a sign of weakness,” Bing recalls. “I was suffering in silence.”
Before long, the demands of doing it all alone caught up with her. Her boss reprimanded her for canceling meetings. She describes it as ‘a turning point conversation.’ “I realized that working that way didn’t serve me, or anyone else, well,” Bing says. “And it was starting to have a negative effect on my performance.”
Today Bing, who teaches leadership and management courses at New York University, views delegating differently. “Now, I think about where I could use help, and where this creates opportunity for others in terms of their skills development and expanding their network,” Bing says. “I don’t have to suffer in silence, and by sharing the work, I can help others, so I actively look for opportunities to do that.”
When delegating is done well, employees feel engaged and empowered to do meaningful work. Workplace performance improves, and productivity increases. Done well, delegating positively impacts the bottom line. For many managers and leaders, however, delegating gracefully seems to be an impossible task.
Barriers to successful delegation
Part of the reason so many of us find delegating difficult is because we don’t understand what it is, says Bing, who consults with managers and executives at Fortune 500 companies as the founder and president of Bing Consulting Group in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s not handing off your dirty work. It’s empowering others to develop their skills, and it’s a means of leveraging the talents of your team. You delegate well when you fully believe and recognize that the people around you add value to your work.” Many long-held beliefs about the nature of work serve as barriers to effective delegation, says Bing. “The number one issue that gets in the way of delegating is the belief that if you want it done right, you must do it yourself.”
Other myths about delegating include the belief that delegating suggests you don’t know how to do the job or that asking for help is a sign of weakness. “Another misguided belief is that if I do it myself, I can maintain control and avoid mistakes,” Bing says. “Or perhaps you feel that others may not be as passionate or committed about the work as you are. “When we start to understand in the broader sense what delegation really is, then it will start to help melt away some of the underlying fears we might harbor,” she explains. Underlying beliefs about delegation that don’t serve us well should be discarded, she advises. “It’s a misguided perception that shared power reduces or diminishes one’s power as opposed to recognizing that sharing power actually expands one’s sphere of influence.”
The cultural divide
Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, senior vice president of communications and community affairs at the Nielsen Company, says that to delegate effectively, she has found that as a woman and a woman of color, she must monitor how she asks for help. “The tone in which you delegate is important, especially for black women. You don’t want to come across as being bossy, or you can end up being called a name that starts with a b, but is not bossy,” she says. “I might say, ‘I’d really love your help on this,’ as opposed to ‘Do this,’” Pearson-McNeil explains, “or ‘I wish I had more time, but can you handle this project for me?’ Maybe I explain too much, but I don’t want people to feel like I’m dumping work on them.”
Linda Bates Parker, director of the University of Cincinnati’s Career Development Center and president and founder of Black Career Women, agrees that cultural biases related to race, gender, and ethnicity exist in the workplace between managers and subordinates. “For years, I’ve had to deal with having no one in my division who looked like me—an African American woman manager—and having employees who were not used to taking direction from someone like me. It felt different to them, and it was different—my style and leadership are going to be different. But I’m not a shy and retiring person, and so people have to get used to me,” Bates Parker says.
For Sylvia Lopez Navarro, marketing and retail manager for Fisker Automotive in Irvine, California, and vice president of the National Hispanic Business Women Association, being a Latina in an industry dominated by males can be challenging when it comes to delegating. “If I delegate something, the perception might be that I don’t have an interest in the project or can’t handle it,” she says. Delegating became easier for Lopez Navarro after the birth of her son two years ago, when she suddenly realized that in order to be successful at home and at work, she simply couldn’t do it all herself. She had to ask for help, which has meant careful planning of projects and clearly communicating objectives and goals.
To help overcome cultural barriers to effective delegation, Kim-Yen Huynh, senior vice president of marketing at First Vietnamese American Bank in Westminster, California, and founder and president of the Asian American Women Business Association, advises women to believe in their own abilities as well as their capacity to be successful. “It doesn’t matter if you are black or yellow, if you do things right and demonstrate self-confidence, you will be looked at as a leader.”
Build a yellow brick road
Heather Herndon Wright, senior director of alliance relationships at the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council in Dallas, Texas, explains that being specific about desired outcomes is key to delegating effectively. Equally important is allowing her staff to achieve those outcomes in ways they believe are best. “I frequently use the analogy, ‘Here we are, and there is the Emerald City. Build me a yellow brick road,’” she says. “It must be made of brick and they must be yellow, but I don’t mind if it’s curvy, straight, or triple decked, as long as it’s completed on time and meets the requirements I laid out.” Bates Parker says those delegating must know their staff well. “Try to connect tasks to roles, interests, and capabilities. I believe very much in respecting and valuing the different talents that people bring to a work environment. “It also might be a ‘stretch opportunity,’” she adds. “It may not be something that they have demonstrated task capability in, but you view them as ready for professional growth and ready to take on job responsibility outside their comfort zone.”
Bing says the first step to delegating gracefully is to get clear about what you want the outcome of the project to be. Next, identify the elements or features that need to happen in order to achieve outcomes. Also think about who around has the requisite skills, talents, and knowledge. Finally, outline the milestones or indicators that you will use to track progress. As Bing explains, “No one of us, no matter how skilled and talented we are, can do it all. Nobody shows up fully loaded. If you’re not delegating, you’re not managing, and the costs to the manager personally, as well as to the business, are exponential.”
Catherine Crawley, Ph.D, is the founder of Crawley Communications & Research, which provides editorial content and research services to individuals and corporations. Visit her website at www.crawleycommunications.com.