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Become a Great Delegator: Ask the Right Questions When Handing Off Work

By Bruce Tulgan

 
Micromanagement, when it occurs, is usually the result of an anxious manager who wants to make sure that everything is getting done the right way, at every step of the way, by overseeing the project from start to finish. The thing is, managers should make sure that everything is getting done the right way, every step of the way! Ongoing performance tracking is the foundation of the management fundamentals. The problem is that micromanagement is not the solution, for a number of reasons.

What is the solution? Delegation.

 
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How can managers delegate effectively?

Of course, delegation goes wrong most often because either the manager gets caught in a pattern of micromanagement, or they make the mistake of thinking that delegation is all about letting go, resulting in a pattern of undermanagement. The reality is that effective delegation lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes: more hands-on and intense than the majority of managers realize, yet not so hands-on and intense as to prevent the manager from allowing the employee to take ownership of the task.

Delegation is an essential tool for managers, but it turns out to be a rather mundane art: it is simply about clearly articulating goals, specifications, and deadlines. If you are the boss, your number one responsibility is to make absolutely sure that every person you manage understands what they are expected to do and exactly how they are expected to do it.

 

Don’t be afraid to spell out expectations

It is amazing how many managers protest, “I shouldn’t have to tell my employees what to do and how to do it. They should know how to do their jobs already.” But then in the next breath, these same managers complain that some of their employees often fail to meet expectations. How are employees supposed to meet – much less exceed – expectations if nobody tells them in clear, simple terms exactly what’s expected of them?

The truth is that most managers adopt this facilitative approach – rather than an explicitly directive approach – because it’s much easier to sidestep the uncomfortable tension that comes from telling other people exactly what to do. Most organizations today also want to avoid creating a culture in which managers give orders and walk away, never listening to the other side of the conversation from the employee’s perspective.

 
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Managers, start asking the really good questions

Yes, management conversations should be interactive dialogues. That means that in order to effectively delegate, managers must become active facilitators.

The first step to effective delegation is explaining the project, including spelling out the expectations and parameters for that project. The second step is for managers ask really good questions: basic questions, probing questions, and focalizing questions.

 

Basic Questions

These are the first questions managers should ask when delegating a task or responsibility to someone, whether they have done that task before or not. Sometimes things change, and a task that an employee was once able to take on is now better delegated to someone else.

  • Can you do this?
  • Are you sure?
  • What resources or support do you need from me in order to do your part of this project?

 

Probing Questions

These are good clarifying questions that managers should ask, but especially when someone is new to a project. The answers to these questions usually make it clear how well an employee understands the assignment, the process, or expectations that have been spelled out in advance.

  • How are you going to do that?
  • How are you going to start?
  • What steps will you follow?

 

Focalizing Questions

These questions should both be asked at the outset, and at each subsequent one-on-one that the manager and employee have in regards to the project. These questions help managers and employees to prioritize and establish timelines, so that everyone is in alignment.

  • How long will each step take?
  • What does your checklist look like?
  • Have you developed any alternate plans if something goes wrong?
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    Facilitate. Ask questions. Seek input. Let people think out loud. But don’t hesitate to make suggestions and lead them on the right path.

    Never forget that effective delegation requires you to make sure that every single employee knows every step of the way exactly what is expected of them, what they are supposed to do, and how they are supposed to do it. By asking the right questions at the right time, managers can make their check-ins systematic and effective, providing the right kind of feedback or course correction at the right time in the project, rather than hovering over employees or simply letting them sink-or-swim.


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