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Delegator vs. micromanager: What kind of boss are you?

Being a delegator is one of the hardest jobs for a leader. Joseph Flahiff explains.

I've worked with many top executives who believed with conviction and sincerity that they were being good leaders...

and delegating. They were following all the right steps for how to delegate. The problem with these leaders was that they were delegating work but not delegating any decision-making responsibility and authority for that work.

If you are telling your teams the work you have decided needs to get done, you are a micromanager, not a delegator. And, you are holding your organization back. Ouch. Yah, but it is true. If you want your organization to be nimble, you need to leverage the smart people in your organization -- not to execute your decisions, but to make decisions on their own

Delegation is a cooperative exercise involving a giver and a receiver. If I give you a rock but you don't accept it, that rock will drop to the ground. It takes two to make an exchange. 

As a leader, it is your job to set the vision -- the high-level vision of where the organization is headed. It is your job to set the parameters within which the organization will operate; then to empower your team members, executive team members, management team members and individual contributors to make all the decisions necessary within those parameters to move toward the vision. Your job is keeping the organization aligned and pointed in the right direction. Like the coxswain in a racing crew, your role is to steer the boat and keep the rowers moving toward the finish line -- and it is a full-time job.

It sounds simple. Just delegate the decisions. It isn't. Being a delegator may just be the single most difficult thing for any leader to do.

Delegation is a cooperative exercise involving a giver and a receiver. If I give you a rock but you don't accept it, that rock will drop to the ground. It takes two to make an exchange.

Look at your leadership style from the side of the receiver. Let's imagine I asked you to plan a party with me, but went on to tell you every detail of everything that needed to be purchased, arranged, wrapped, and baked. Would you feel like you were planning a party with me or just being my errand-runner?

Now let's try again. I ask you to plan a party with me and say, I want it to be a coral reef theme and that the party is for a nine-year-old girl. Our budget is $250 and it needs to be this Saturday (because that is her birthday). Then I say, "You can figure out the details, I trust you." Now, how do you feel? Are you a partner? YES! You know the information, you have the authority to make decisions and you have been trusted to do a good job. You'd better believe that you are going to put in the extra effort to show that you can do the job.

Leaders who make all the decisions about their products or service and detail the outcomes, aren't creating empowerment -- they are being a frustrating micromanager.

Here is my prescription for becoming a delegator instead of being the dreaded micromanager.

Think

As a leader, think back over the past 24 to 48 hours. How often did you create an opportunity for someone else to make a decision? Was most of your time spent making decisions and giving those decisions to others to execute?

Act

Start with a fun little exercise I do with some of my coaching clients: For the next week set an alarm on your phone for some time in the evening, 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. Then get a pad of paper. When the timer goes off, draw a line down the middle of the pad. Go through your day hour by hour and, on the left hand side, write down times when you communicated your vision and set parameters but gave others the ability to make the decisions. On the right, note the decisions you made and gave to others to execute. As a leader, it is your goal to do more on the left than on the right.

Share

To really solidify your commitment to creating opportunities for empowerment, don't keep it to yourself. Tell some people about your commitment to delegate decisions, not work. Explain what the difference is between a delegator and a micromanager -- that will help you clarify it in your own mind. And ask for their help in keeping you to this commitment. Remember, this really is one of the hardest things you will do -- and it is impossible to make happen all on your own. It takes two to make an exchange.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at 
Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at www.whitewaterprojects.com.

Next Steps

Previously from Flahiff, a three-part executive leadership series on how to manage collocated and remote teams:

How to manage a distributed team: Eight best practices

Three variations on remote teams and how to manage them

Setting expectations for your collocated team

This was last published in June 2016

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