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Leadership and Delegation

by Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International


Clean your room. Please, clean your room. I'll pay you to clean your room. You can't go out until you clean your room.

Rewards, punishments, begging, nagging... Why is it so challenging to get people to do things?

Delegation, whether at work or at home, is an area where many leaders struggle.

What if they don't do it right?

What if they mess it up?

What if they don't get it done at all?

What if the outcome is not up to my standards?

It's often hard to relinquish control. Others may not do it "our way". Many times it seems more expedient (and simpler) to do the work ourselves. Rather than learning to delegate effectively, we work longer hours.

When done well, delegation benefits everyone. Leaders free up time for other activities. Followers grow and contribute. Organizations achieve more. Sadly, many of us have never learned how to delegate well and we stress over whether the delegated task will get done right, or at all.

Here are some fast tips.

Prior to delegating, leaders must correctly diagnose two areas: Skills and interest. If someone knows how to do the task and likes it, delegation is appropriate. If one of those two variables is lacking, a different leadership action is needed.

Skills and Knowledge

As leaders, we often make too many assumptions about what people can do and what they know (or should know).

Let's return to the "clean your room" example. It is common for parents to believe that their young person already possesses the necessary skills for this job. Do they? Really?

Why would a young person know how to clean a room well? Why would they share the same definition of "clean" that a parent does? If you have ever been met with the response "I did clean it" and the result doesn't meet your standards, chances are that there is a skill or knowledge gap. Delegation wasn't appropriate.

In the business world, how can a leader know if someone possesses the necessary skills and knowledge? One approach is to talk to the employee and seek his or her input. When doing so, it is wise for leaders to be cautious and remember that it is common for employees to underestimate what a task involves if they have never done it before and/or overestimate their own skills and abilities. Unless you've observed them successfully carrying out the task in the past (or a very similar one), the possession of skills and knowledge may be unknown.

While assessing technical abilities can often be easily done, assessing intangible skills can be more challenging. We sometimes assume that an individual should know how to handle a conflict because we have observed that they know how to communicate. The skills to handle unproductive emotions in a conflict and the skills to transmit information are different. Similarly, we sometimes mistakenly assume that extraverted people are skilled in sales. The skills to facilitate the sales process and the skills to facilitate a conversation are very different. Leaders who correctly diagnose the precise skill sets required to successfully carry out a task will find that they make fewer errors on this component of delegation.

When someone lacks skills or knowledge in any measure, delegation is risky.

Leader Action: Training and coaching.

Interest and Motivation

If they have the skills and knowledge, can the leader delegate? It depends. Do they also possess sufficient interest and motivation?

A common approach to motivating people is to reward them for the behaviors you want to see and punish those you don't want to see. Hence the common saying, "What gets rewarded gets done."

For leaders (and parents), a financial incentive is often used in the hopes of guaranteeing the delegated task will get completed.

Motivation theorist Frederick Herzberg, describes external rewards like pay and benefits as hygiene factors. They are like temperature. When the room temperature is comfortable we don't think about it. When it is too hot or too cold, we are unhappy and think about little else. Similarly, the absence of rewards can be de-motivating. The presence of rewards is not, in isolation, motivating.

Inner motivation is something that motivates people to want to do something without expecting a reward. According to study after study, people report feeling motivated by things like: A sense of accomplishment, pride in good work, sense of growth, being challenged and working with great colleagues.

If we don't tap into the emotion and passion of others, we are unlikely to achieve much more than short-term, limited success. Competent leaders do not underestimate this challenge. They know that they cannot force someone to be passionate and they understand the difference between external and internal motivation. They devote energy to creating an environment that fosters and naturally promotes inner motivation. They find out what tasks their employees find interesting and motivating and look for opportunities to delegate those.

Does this mean that leaders shouldn't reward people? Rewards are important when they are given as recognition rather than bribe. When rewards recognize the intrinsic motivation already in play, people cherish them for what they symbolize.

Stephen Covey, author of the seminal book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People once said, "You can buy a person's hand, but you can't buy his heart. You can buy his back, but you can't buy his brain. His heart is where his enthusiasm is; his brain is where his creativity is, his ingenuity, his resourcefulness."

If you're frustrated that you can't offer greater rewards to your team, reflect on the tireless efforts that people devote in the spirit of volunteerism and ask yourself why? You'll probably reach the same conclusion that the motivation studies report. Tapping inner motivation doesn't require a larger budget. It requires leadership.

All of us have things to do that we are skilled in but lack interest. We procrastinate. We make excuses. Does the individual find the task itself motivating? If yes, delegation is appropriate. If not, delegation may fail. You may find this is true of the exercise program you keep delegating yourself to do. You know what to do, you just don't want to do it.

When interest and motivation is lacking, delegation is risky.

Leader Action: Support and encouragement.

By definition, leadership is about "leading" other people. The long term success of a leader is largely determined by those who follow. As a result, leaders must seek to understand what influences people, what makes them tick, how to talk to them, how to challenge them, how to motivate them and how to delegate the tasks for which they are best suited. Leaders who match individuals to jobs they are not only skilled in, but also motivated to do, will thrive in the face of today's rapid changes.


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