Delegation Is Not Abdication Of Responsibility Essay

This is the story of a small business owner — let’s call him Bob — who goes through a challenge faced by millions of business owners:  his business becomes successful and takes off.

That sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?

Here’s the challenge: Bob must transition from being a solo entrepreneur, to a business owner with employees.

Bob goes from being an individual contributor, to directing others.

Directing others involves delegation. Quite a few small business owners struggle with learning how to delegate.  Delegating and abdicating can look pretty similar at the beginning.

How can you tell them apart?  Let’s examine Bob’s story, to understand how to delegate without abdicating.

Mark Gets a Promotion, Bob Gets a Vacation

Bob started his business because he is good at what he does. As his reputation in the marketplace grew, so did his business.

He reached the point where he could no longer do it alone. So he hired Mark, then Jim, then others.

The roster may have expanded but Bob’s workload stayed the same. Bob never got away from being busy all the time as the business grew.

Something had to give.

One day Bob made a big mistake.  He forgot to place an order for a critical inventory item. It just slipped through the cracks in all the commotion of a typical hectic week. He had multiple unhappy customers due to the lack of stock.

But Mark came in with a solution.  Buy the items from a local competitor to deliver to their long time customers, he suggested. It wasn’t a profitable solution but it at least kept the customers happy.

This got Bob thinking, “Mark is a ‘get it done’ kind of guy. He really understands what matters here. A happy customer is more important than the profit on one transaction. Mark is the kind of guy I can trust to make the right decisions.”

So on Friday afternoon, Bob tells Mark he has a crazy idea. If he doesn’t get a break soon, he is going to wig out.

So he is taking a week off starting Monday. He’s heading up to the forest where there’s no Internet, no mobile phone reception. Just pine trees, peace and quiet. He’s leaving Mark in charge. Mark already knows everything about the business. It will be just fine.

Mark is a little dubious about this. Sure, he is confident that he knows the business. It’s just that there are things only Bob has ever done.

Bob won’t hear it though. He thinks Mark is just being modest. So with a flourish, he hands the keys over to Mark and heads out the door with a big smile on his face.

Let’s Stop Our Story For a Moment

Delegation involves several steps. The first step is to determine the right person to delegate to.

“Right” does not necessarily mean “presently qualified.” Delegation is a multi-step process.

Being qualified isn’t enough.  The fact that the target of your delegation is presently qualified can actually get you into trouble. It can lull you into short cutting the necessary steps of delegation — and turn you into an abdicator.

After selecting a person to delegate to, you need to train and instruct that person.  Then you need to give assignments and authority.

It does no good to make someone responsible for paying vendors if they can’t sign the check. You can’t instruct an employee to keep the store appropriately staffed if he or she isn’t allowed to alter the schedule. Sometimes we forget the authority we ourselves possess.

It pays to think this through. It’s not a bad idea to ask the person what authority he or she thinks is necessary to carry out the assignments.

If you find yourself bristling at the person’s reply, consider whether it is because the person is overreaching or if you are just uncomfortable giving away the authority required to get the job done.

Delegation can be emotionally challenging for you. After all, the person could fail. What is even scarier is – the person could do it differently from the way you’ve done it.

We are often more attached to our methods than the outcomes. Get clear if you are going to delegate. Outcomes are the only thing you truly manage going forward.

You must allow your employees the freedom to perform. Micromanaging (really, managing at all) will stifle their work and defeat the whole point of delegating.

Your intention needs to be to free yourself of these particular responsibilities — completely.

Plug into the possibility that your qualified staff are now a part of your brain trust. Their ideas and innovations are an extension of you. Let them bring something to the table.

Monitoring and Feedback are Crucial

Just because you have delegated doesn’t mean you wash your hands clean of the whole thing.

Monitor results and outcomes. Do the results meet your expectations? If they do, offer praise. Positive feedback encourages people to keep up the good work.

If results are not up to par, understand it is your responsibility to help the person make adjustments.  Try to determine what went wrong and what’s needed, including:

  • Did you train your employee properly?
  • Does he or she need a refresher?
  • Were your instructions clear?
  • Did the employee understand the outcome you were seeking?
  • Did he or she have the resources needed?
  • Did he or she really have the necessary authority?

The 6 Steps of Delegation

To effectively delegate, and not abdicate, you must do these steps, in this order:

  • Select
  • Train
  • Instruct
  • Assign
  • Authorize
  • Mentor

If you’ve stopped anywhere along these steps — you didn’t delegate, you abdicated.

The earlier you stopped, the worse the abdication was and the higher the potential damage.

Once you understand that there are six steps involved, the difference between delegating and abdicating starts to look clearer.

Circling back to our story of Bob and Mark — whatever happened with Mark?

Tanned, Rested and Back On The Job

Bob strolls back into work with a new spring in his step. He’s asking himself why he waited so long to take some time off. After all, Mark could have covered for him long ago.

Mark is already in the office. He looks up haggardly and says, “Oh man, am I ever glad to see you.”

Bob inquires, “Why, what’s up?”

Mark then launches into a litany of unexpected happenings. This broke. That person was late. The supplier shipped the wrong size. The company’s latest customer wants a price break.

Mark wasn’t prepared for any of this.

Bob barely got past step one of a six step process before he disconnected. He didn’t train or instruct.

So here’s Mark, all stressed out that he “failed” — when it was Bob who failed him!

Bob abdicated rather than delegated.

So now Bob has some work to do. It’s not just that he needs to clean up from last week. He needs to step back and prepare Mark so that next time, Mark can take it all on.

Mark is up for it.  As for Bob, knowing now what he needs to do to delegate properly, he will get it right next time.

After all, Bob is going to need another vacation soon enough.

Troubled business man Photo via Shutterstock

More in: Things You Didn't Know

One of the hallmarks of great leadership is effective delegation. This happens when a business owner or a manager regularly gives responsibility and authority to an employee to complete a task. Doing so develops people who are ultimately more fulfilled and productive. And for the manager or business owner, delegating frees you to attend to the important strategic work of business. There is a critical distinction however, between delegating and abdicating, and it's one that many business owners struggle with.

The dictionary defines delegate as: "To give a task to somebody else with responsibility to act on your behalf. To give somebody else the power to act, make decisions or allocate resources on your behalf." Sounds good, right?

To abdicate, on the other hand, is simply this: "To fail to fulfill a duty or responsibility." Not so good, is it?

Giving It Away or Entrusting It

Accountability can be a slippery thing. Some tasks or functions in a business beg to be handed off to someone better suited or qualified. Take financial management for example. Too many business owners want someone else to take on that role, leaving them free to focus on the "fun" stuff of running the business. But if you hand off a task or a function to an employee and completely remove yourself from the picture, you are merely abdicating your role as the business owner.

In Chapter Four of The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber provides an example of a typical business entering its adolescence and abdicating responsibilities to its first employee:

There's a critical moment in every business when the owner hires his very first employee to do the work he doesn't know how to do himself, or doesn't want to do... And in a single stroke, you suddenly understand what it means to be in business in a way you never understood before. ‘I don't have to do that anymore!' At last you're free. The Manager in you wakes up and the Technician temporarily goes to sleep. Your worries are over. Someone else is going to do that now. But at the same time — unaccustomed as you are to being The Manager — your new found freedom takes on an all too common form. It's called Management by Abdication rather than by Delegation. In short, like every small business owner has done before you, you hand the books over to Harry...and run.

Abdication can lead to disastrous results. Tasks aren't completed properly or at all, you have unhappy customers, missed deadlines, financial problems — all of which you discover well after the fact because you abdicated those tasks...and ran!

Remember our dictionary definition of "delegate" is to give someone else a task with the responsibility to act on your behalf. Regardless of who has the responsibility for a task or function in your business, you are ultimately accountable for the outcome. Does this mean you must micro-manage employees to ensure things are done correctly? Or should you just do everything yourself to avoid the danger of abdicating the things you are accountable for?

Certainly not!

When you delegate tasks and responsibilities properly, with structure and forethought, it will free you and your managers from the crushing load of tactical work that keeps you from working on your business.

Some Guidelines for Effective Delegation

If you keep doing all the little daily tasks that you've always done, then you'll forever be trapped doing them and never free up the time to work on your business. If letting go of these tasks is a bit daunting (and sometimes it is, especially if you've always done it and have your particular way of doing it) then take gradual steps.

  • First, identify a task that you want to delegate.
  • Document the correct way to perform this task, step by step, including the quality control standards for each step. (At E-Myth we call this type of system document an Action Plan.)
  • Clearly specify the expected results of the delegated task. Give information on what, why, when, who, where and how.
  • Have someone follow your Action Plan. Maintain open lines of communication. Don't micro-manage, but make sure that you are kept in the loop on progress and performance.Then revise your document until you are both comfortable with it.
  • When the new system document is ready, provide it to the employee responsible for that task, train them on how to successfully run this "system" and insert a copy of this process document into your company's Operations Manual. (If you're asking, "What Operations Manual?" then its definitely time to contact us for help!)
  • Repeat these steps on the next task.

Delegation is a critical component in the development of a business that is balanced and inclusive. It will help you discover the natural place for yourself, your managers and your staff.

Tell Us About It

Have you triumphed and learned how to effectively delegate? Has it freed you to focus on the important strategic aspects of running a business? We invite you to share your experiences by commenting below.

Need Help?

All of E-Myth's programs are designed to help business owners overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of your success.

If delegation is an area you struggle with, consider attending an E-Myth Leadership Intensive Seminar. At this seminar, held in northern California's wine country, business owners from all over the world come together to learn the leadership tools essential to building a world-class business — including delegation strategy. 

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