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Delegating Authority

While decision-making is a critical part of managing, some of the best decisions are the ones to do nothing. Among the reasons to do nothing is that others should make the decision. Yes, decision can be delegated to others. More precisely, authority can be delegated down the chain of command so that decisions can be made at the correct level. This article will explore how delegation can be done effectively.

Last month we related how Andrew Grove at Intel made the decision to move out of one business into another. An interesting footnote to Intel's dramatic move from the memory business to microprocessors is how decisions were made at the middle manager level. Says Grove, "While Intel's business changed and [top] management was looking for clever memory strategies and arguing among themselves, trying to figure out how to fight an unwinnable war, men and women lower in the [chain of command] unbeknownst to us, got us ready to execute the strategic turn that saved our necks and gave us a great future."

These managers did this by deciding to shift resources to the most profitable lines—they could see firsthand where change needed to be made. Fortunately for Grove, his decision to do nothing was rewarded as the managers closest to the work had the authority to make critical decisions, which in the end, enabled top management to shift into the new business.

Letting others make decisions is often easier said than done. Decisions have two primary components: preferences regarding possible outcomes and beliefs about how ends might be accomplished. General managers who want to work through others to get results attempt to clarify the outcomes and delegate the right to decide the means used to achieve those outcomes. They do this through policy.

Policy is about setting expectations for required results. In setting expectations and assigning them to others, managers must also delegate authority. Authority, however, is often misunderstood or misapplied by managers as they create and implement policy.

Pitfall 1: The policy leaves authority unclear. For example, a policy that reads more like a job description—listing activities and/or tasks that are considered part of the job—is likely to be unclear on where the right to decide exists. A job description statement such as "make general ledger entries" implies a task; a good policy assigns outcomes and makes clear what decisions are to be made at the position of the assigned accountability. Create policies that are based on clear outcomes and specify the authority related to those outcomes.

Pitfall 2: Although the policy assigns clear outcomes, the authority is retained by the superior. If the accountability is to design a brochure for a product launch, the manager must also determine who has the right to decide the final design. Often, the policy states that the one assigned to do the design must get approval first. This gives the boss ultimate authority as he or she has veto power on the final design. This not only makes the boss a bottleneck for getting things done, it also diminishes responsibility of those assigned the outcome, retarding their chance to grow and develop. How to avoid: Don't confuse monitoring progress towards outcomes with decision. Be sure to monitor the progress but don't retain the right to decide.

Pitfall 3: Managers violate their own delegation by agreeing to take back the decision. It is not unusual in modes of uncertainty (when judgments must be made as to means) that subordinates will look for a higher authority to "bless" their decision. And many managers willingly accept the responsibility. This is tempting because most managers used to make the very decisions being pushed back to them, and did it well. Often, helping solve subordinate's (or anyone's) problems is something that they actually enjoy. How to avoid: When others attempt to push back the decision, don't take it back: "I look forward to seeing what you decide."

Pitfall 4: Managers don't help subordinates develop their decision-making capability. One has to learn how to make effective decisions. Because it takes time to develop decision-making skills, it is usually more effective for subordinates to learn by making small, but real, decisions rather than large ones. How to avoid: Develop a plan for subordinates that includes increasing accountability and authority. Develop peer support for subordinates to discuss decisions both during and after they occur.

Effective use of policy allows managers to accomplish more through other people. Good policies delegate authority to the appropriate level, so decisions can be made as close to the work as possible. And the people making those decisions will grow and develop along the way.


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