Managers need to learn how to let go

When most people get promoted to a supervisory or management role, it’s because they earned a reputation for getting things done. Because of their background, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to become proficient at not doing. The act of “not doing” is otherwise known as the fine art of delegating.

In 1983, I was promoted to my first role as supervisor. I was placed in charge of two to three employees in an end-user support group known as an Information Centre. While we had many responsibilities, for the most part, we were PC problem solvers.

I was promoted because I was the most capable problem solver of the group – it is not boasting to state I could solve any problem we ran across, faster, more effectively and more permanently than anyone else on the team. This fact, and my acute awareness of it, caused no end of grief.

For at least two years, I micromanaged everything. Since I could do any one task better than anyone else, I naturally tried to do every task by myself. I drove my staff nuts and my users crazy. My excuse? I was young; I was ignorant; I was incompetent – but I was learning, albeit slowly.

Even if it were true that I was at least 30 per cent better at problem solving than any one staff member, it slowly dawned on me that three people could solve more problems than one person.

Management is ultimately about delegating tasks to others, making sure they understand the goal and removing obstacles from their path…in particular the largest obstacle – ourselves and our urge to kibitz.

This is easier said than done. A new manager’s biggest obstacle to progress is their certain, and often correct, knowledge that they could perform any individual task more reliably themselves. It is difficult to put aside our proven skills and adopt a new, untested way of doing things, even when logic argues that we should our behaviour.

Delegating is especially difficult when things go wrong. There is an inherent contradiction, some would say unfairness, to the process. When I delegate a task to staff members, they are accepting a responsibility to me to get the job done. But when they fail to deliver the task, I am still responsible to the client and I must protect my staff member from outside criticism.

To anyone who prides themselves on getting things done, this is what sticks in our craw and is the primary reason we’d rather do things ourselves. To us, delegation is the abdication of responsibility for delivering the task properly and on time. Welcome to the contradictions of management.

This is an IT issue, because the phrase project management is merely the plural of delegation. Managing a project is nothing more than the delegation of a thousand tasks to dozens of people. A manager is responsible for all of them and in control of none of them.

What little control we have over the success of a delegated task begins before the delegation takes place.

First? Identify the person or team you deem most capable of delivering the task. Hopefully you’ve hired the very best people you can find. The more of them at your disposal, the easier it’ll be to delegate the really important tasks to them. Success at delegation begins with the hiring process.

Next? Communicate what needs doing as clearly and as precisely as possible, and why this task is important.

Then, have them relay back their understanding of the assignment and the need for a successful completion to ensure they really do understand and have not been nodding their heads in agreement so that you’ll leave and they can get back to their priorities.

Meet with them on a predetermined schedule to track their progress, and assist when needed, to remove any external roadblocks that are blocking their progress.

Finally? You hold your breath and wait for a timely delivery, know that the real secret to delegation is letting go and accepting that this is why you get paid the big bucks. You are getting paid the big bucks aren’t you?

de Jager is a management consultant and speaker who didn’t delegate this article to a ghostwriter. Contact him at