Delegating Decisions

Graphic of a question mark inside a rainbow of outward-pointing arrowsThere’s more to delegation than, “Here, do this thing.” A lot more. But we typically don’t think of it beyond, well, “Here, do this thing.”

But what about delegating decisions?

Yikes. Scary, right? What if they decide wrongly, and it comes back on you?

Two reasons to delegate decisions – despite the risks

The obvious reason: you’re developing and growing your people, and that’s one of the primary responsibilities of leadership.

Perhaps less obvious: the person closest to the situation often knows more about that situation, and therefore is in a better position to make a good decision.

Professor, strategist, writer, and consultant Roger Martin said this in a recent article on Medium: “Leadership is about making only the choices that you are best positioned to make  –  and not making the ones for which you aren’t, even if you are more senior than the person who will make the choice.”

A few paragraphs later, he added this zinger: “Just because you are their superior doesn’t mean you are better positioned to make the choice. Just because you are better positioned to make higher-level choices doesn’t mean that you are better at theirs – or should spend your time second-guessing theirs. If you want to underutilize them, stilt their development, and infantilize them, go ahead.”

Ouch. And, he’s right.

Deciding to delegate decisions

So – how do you decide which decisions to delegate to someone else?

Consider these questions, in this order.

  1. How much do they know about the situation?
    • If they know more about the details than you, the decision should be theirs to make.
  2. Will the decision impact big-picture strategic outcomes? If so, do they know enough about the big picture to make a decision that will support those outcomes?
    • Here’s where it gets interesting. You might think that in this case, you should make the decision. But instead, I’d encourage you to give them the big-picture view so they can include that in their decision-making process.
  3. Do they understand the core principles and values of the organization, and do they know how to weigh their decisions in relation to those principles and values?
    • If not, then you have a different, and larger, problem. Everyone – from individual team members on up – should be aware of the vision and values of the organization and how to “walk the talk” in their actions and, yes, the choices they make.
  4. Can you give them the authority as well as the responsibility?
    • Responsibility without authority is a land-mine waiting to be triggered, and it’s grossly unfair to your people.

As a manager, you need to understand what decisions you and your team make during the normal course of your work. And then you can consider each of your team members, including their overall understanding of the work, the situation, and the larger context of the organization as a whole.

From there, you can determine who on your team is ready, and who’s not ready, to make the different types of decisions that you encounter on a normal basis. And for those who aren’t ready, take steps to understand why they’re not, and help them grow.

The importance of guardrails

Just because you start delegating decision-making doesn’t mean your team starts making all the decisions. You need to be clear about the guardrails that will keep them from flying off the road and into trouble. For instance, decisions that come up in unusual circumstances (and the definition of “unusual” is important) are, generally speaking, not decisions your team should be engaging with. 

But with appropriate guidance, guardrails, and mentoring, your people can grow in responsibility and strategic awareness, equipping them to become leaders themselves – even if they never choose to take a formal leadership role.

Delegation is challenging, whether it’s tasks, projects, or decisions. Part of learning good leadership skills is having a framework within which managers can make informed delegation decisions instead of randomly – and especially instead of keeping all the work for themselves. Contact me if you’d like to talk about leadership development for your first-line managers, either as individuals or as a cohort.