Forget all you’ve been taught about delegation

Hello and welcome back to part six of our ten-week leadership healthy habits mini-series that addresses some of the most significant challenges leaders face in the workplace.

The job of a leader

A leader's job is to set the vision and then work relentlessly to create the environment that allows and inspires their team to make it a reality.

In this respect, our job is more about delivering through others and less about what we physically deliver ourselves.

Unfortunately, much of what we know about delegation comes from the Management Theory developed during the industrial revolution. This was when organizations sought to get the maximum productivity from manual workers on a production line in a factory.

But the problem is, we have continued to apply much of this outdated management theory to the "knowledge workers" in an office environment and at the same time, we scratch our heads, wondering why our people aren't more engaged.

Increasing engagement

An all too familiar story plays out in most businesses around the world.

Following each annual engagement survey, we introduce another set of initiatives and employee benefits, yet the needle only moves fractionally in the right direction, if at all. The leadership team looks at the HR department as if this is their problem and continues to have the same frustrating conversations.

"We gave them inflationary pay-rises, free tea and coffee, bowls of fresh fruit and table football!
What more do we have to do?"

But what if the solution was much simpler and cheaper?

Over fifteen years of experience tells me that a major reason for this lack of engagement is the way in which leaders delegate.

The most common approach is to tell people what needs to be achieved and how to do it. The problem with this is that it provides people with very little freedom and autonomy, which we know leads to low levels of engagement. We also know autonomy is one of the most universal motivators.

The alternative approach is to adopt the British Army's concept of "Mission Command".

This focuses on telling people what needs to be achieved, why the task is important, and the boundaries within which they must operate.

Once you've done this, get out of their way and let them work out the how for themselves.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.“

General George S. Patton

This approach does take a little more time and effort but the results and impact on employee engagement is phenomenal. And it's a whole lot cheaper than bowls of fruit, table football and installing Google'esque slides in the office!.

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Strategic leadership and big ideas with General David H. Petraeus

This really is a remarkable episode and we’ve not had a guest on the show who has shouldered the same weight of leadership responsibility as General Petraeus…during our conversation I asked him directly how he remained resilient and managed this level of responsibility.

Amongst this we discussed strategy, leadership styles, how to get things done in complex, fast-moving environments, and as you would expect, Mission Command.

Recommended Read

Captain David Marquet was used to giving orders. In the high-stress environment of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, it was crucial his men did their job well. But the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance and the worst retention in the fleet.

One day, Marquet unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. He realized he was leading in a culture of followers, and they were all in danger unless they fundamentally changed the way they did things.

Marquet took matters into his own hands and pushed for leadership at every level. Before long, his crew became fully engaged and the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet.

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