This article is based on the lecture “Delegation of Responsibility, Feedback Skills, and Team Management” by Alexey Kulakov, CEO of JetStyle.
It has always seemed to me that the topic of task delegation is rather simple. I have not brought it up before since setting a task is, in my opinion, is a minimum standard any manager must be able to perform. However, whenever I start a new project with the clients, a collaboration with partners, or a consultant task in a startup to establish a production cycle, I find out that the fundamental features of the task assignment process are being ignored. Besides, in half of my own mistakes, upon careful analysis, I also distinguish a task delegation error. Let us take a closer look at this topic.
We will start by answering one question.
Why is it challenging to delegate responsibility?
I think that all of us, no matter if we know how to delegate or not, whether we are studying in the ninth grade or have been doing business for twenty years, still have some problems with task delegation. Thus, when one person assigns a task to another, difficulties arise in one way or another.
What prevents a leader from setting a task?
Before reading further, I ask you to take half a minute to think and answer the following question: “What difficulties do I have with delegation?”
Here are some of the answers people have given me before.
While preparing a training course on delegation, I did a demo launch on JetStyle and asked the same question. The winning answer to this question was quite predictable:
It is faster and cheaper to do it yourself.
Apart from that, there were a dozen more common replies:
1. You do not know what the other person’s capabilities are
How does one understand the limits of their capabilities? Everyone realizes that it is awesome to set tasks in the proximal development zone — that is, assignments that the person can perform, but for which they need to slightly grow professionally. Then the individual is interested, they develop, and you, in turn, improve your human resources. But how do you understand where the zone of proximal development ends?
2. The project has an immense legacy, and it is hard to convey everything
In the client business, it often happens that you receive a task in which other people have already messed up before. Besides, you may not know its potholes, and you need to figure it out somehow and take responsibility for an incredibly confusing concept. It is one of the most unpredictable cases, as you do not have a clear idea of how deep the problem underlies in advance.
3. The task’s scope is not clear
You may be setting a task, not knowing where its limit is since, for you, it is a new subject area. Therefore, you do not know how to figure out if the person doing this task on your behalf is moving in the right direction in general.
4. It is not clear where to begin
For example, you have experience as a line manager in a large Russian company. Now, you have been entrusted with something that neither you nor anyone else around you has ever done. For instance, you need to take the company’s sales to Europe. Thus, you need to figure something out. So, what to do? How do you give tasks to your team? You have no experience, no benchmark, and no instructions, just obligations.
5. “I am not competent to give such tasks, but I must”
Imagine: it so happened that it is now your responsibility to set tasks in which you do not have any relevant knowledge. It is most likely, once again, the case of a particular area being new to you. However, there is no other task manager.
6. “I thought I was competent to set such a task, but I am not”
Usually, this situation is just the continuation of the previous one and is an even more complicated case. So, you have overestimated your competence. You thought you were competent, but, for example, we're afraid to admit that you were, in fact, not. Or, perhaps, you knew it but did not share it with your subordinates, and certainly not with your superiors. Later on, it turns out that you set the task poorly since your level of competence was not enough, and you lied to yourself and everyone around you. It is a harrowing experience for a leader.
7. The first one assesses, the second one sets, while the third one does
A frequent story in large companies, when people did not agree with each other, and the person who is trying to complete the task suffers the most. In a company of 20 people, such a problem should not exist, while in organizations with 70 people and more, this unfolds fully.
8. Unclear priorities
It is not clear to anyone what to do first, what — second, what — third, why do all this, and where it will lead. Besides, how do you point out what not to do? What can and what cannot be sacrificed? And you have to know how to not break.
How do you assess an employee?
I have a problem firing people. I am a kind person. It is difficult for me to hurt another one. I, like many others, do not like to say unpleasant things to people. When I was deciding how to deal with the early prevention of what I would later fire people for, I thought it would be better to tell them directly when hiring them: “Guys, this is what is important to me, and this is why I’ll fire you, for you to know from the beginning.” There are five such factors.
All the factors from this list are good or bad not on their own, but in dynamics. For example, it is not so important how fast you are in comparison with your colleagues, but whether your speed increases or decreases. If it grows, and it is clear that you have every chance to catch up and overtake — great. If the speed becomes lower, it means something went wrong, and you need to fix it. The leader’s task is to notice this on time and fire a warning shot.
This is measured in comparison to peers and should grow. If you are slower than the colleagues with the same level of competence and do not grow professionally, it is a bad sign.
This is more important than speed. You should be reliable. If we entrust you with something and you have taken it on your responsibility, then we must be sure that you are a dedicated member of the team, and you will do it. If, by chance, you cannot do it, then as soon as you realize that you are deviating from the plan, you should come and say: “I am at a dead end.” Even if your boss does not ping you, you should do it yourself and not tackle the issue alone.
Also, specifically for the web development and design spheres: if you say that you will be doing this task for a certain number of days, you should be doing it for that many days, and in the end, you must have the result you agreed on.
3. Learning ability
It is all about the number of times a person needs something to be repeated. Zero, of course, is a desirable number, meaning the person comes to an understanding himself. Besides, nobody likes to repeat themselves more than twice. When working in IT, it is usually not a problem. It may happen that a person does not use their intelligence, but it does not mean that they don’t have it. In this sense, when a person does not get some concept, in most cases, they either are not directing their attention to the task, or they think that they know better than you.
We are in a technology industry that is changing rapidly, and learning is critical. If a person learns reluctantly and gains experience slowly, then he will lag behind all the time.
This is the most critical factor, inversely proportional to the amount of management required per person. It is vital because the scarcest resource that a company has is the time of qualified managers. Your company’s productivity highly depends on the management resources you have, and you are spending them on supervision. Therefore, any good leader wants to spend a minimum of managerial effort on control — that is, not to dedicate excessive time resources to get the desired result from a person.
It has a direct consequence — at what level of abstraction can the task be transferred? Here we have a whole spectrum from “explained everything thoroughly and controlled everything” to “transferred a part of the business to manage.” So, in fact, growing self-reliance allows the company to promote you.
The reverse process is precisely a decrease in independence.
Let’s say that a person used to have high self-reliance. Therefore, the leader says: “Look, there is such a problem. Deal with it, please.” It is a task of a high degree of abstraction, and the leader assumes that the person will somehow figure it out. And then he discovers: Aha, it doesn’t work that way. The manager goes to them again: “These are the parts of this problem, and this is how we will solve them; do this part first, please.” Then, the manager leaves and looks at what the subordinate is doing. Suppose it turns out that they cannot do it by themself. “Okay, look, this part is solved by such means. Go there for this, and for this — there, you can learn this over there, you will do such tasks here. Clear?” If it does not help, then the next level goes like: “So, we take one task, it is solved as follows — there is the code there, write here like this; here is a successful pattern for you.” And we go down from top to bottom until the person starts dropping predictability.
From my point of view, the main symptom that a person needs to be fired is when he rushed down this ladder to the point where you need to spend more and more of your supervision effort to get the next piece of beneficial work. Once, having come to the company, he climbed this ladder, and now something has gone wrong. From the effective interaction between the leader and the subordinate, you have come to a system that does not mutually amplify energy but extinguishes it.
At this moment, a warning shot is fired: “Look, to get a result from you, I need to spend more and more time. I am not satisfied with this. I believe that your problem is that you are slow / unpredictable / you learn slowly / you just do not want to be independent. Please, do something about it. If you want me to help you, ask. If there is no progress, we will fire you.”
A side note is that the issue is most likely not within the subordinate. I am talking about the broken link between the leader and the employee. It is this social molecule that has ceased to work and must be repaired. But, speaking of dismissals, it is clear that managers are fired less often because it is more difficult to replace them.
There is another factor that makes working with a person difficult for everyone. It is the characteristic of being hysterical. In fact, hysteria is a strong word that is easy to apply when needed and not. I am talking about a specific case — a person cannot cope with emotions and lets out everything that is inside him on his colleagues so that they are not the only ones that will be struggling. So, this happens, and humanly it can be understood. However, if a person is not ready to work on that and discuss what can be done so that this does not happen again if he uses this as a communication method, it wastes the team’s energy. The target team state is mutual trust and readiness to “share consciousness” with the mates. To do this, the environment within the company must be safe. If someone does not know how to control themself and does not want to learn it — you can show them the exit door.
It is challenging to make a formal rule out of this point, as hysteria usually happens so that it is difficult to figure out how the situation escalated and who is there to blame. But I am absolutely convinced that people should know that this is unacceptable, and in case of loss of control, they have their “license confiscated.”
These are the 5 factors. I do not suggest that you follow this system; you may have a different one. We have it like that because we are a Production.
This approach leads to the fact that people know what we want from them. It works well when there is early issue prevention, and the qualities you value and for which a person will be fired are evident.
If a person deviates from these rules for the first time, tell him: “Nothing terrible has happened, you have a problem here, fix it.” They take time to fix it, you thank them for this, and after that, they are great. Or they come to you and say — I tried, not everything worked out — it is also ok, also normal, and the resolution is in progress.
However, if you do not engage in early issue prevention, then you and this person come to the state that I had experienced when I was a young leader. It goes like this. There is a person who does not really make mistakes, but they somehow do not perform much, and we must decide what to do with them. As a leader, I begin to think that maybe it is my fault. Perhaps I did not organize the “greenhouse” very well for them. Maybe I have not explained everything enough to them yet, and the mistake is on my side, so I give them one more chance. There are, of course, exceptions, but in my experience, I should have fired the person immediately. And in fact, I spoilt them much earlier, when I hired him. That is, once again — I do not want to say that the person was bad. You just set the wrong tone of the relationship with them, and now you are wasting the company’s energy instead of accumulating it.
Okay, we have talked about how to assess an employee. Let’s go back to the manager.
What are the responsibilities of a leader?
Each of us (except for those who combine both roles of managing and owning a company) has a contract with someone of a higher position: with the board of shareholders, director, and team. And in this contract, there are four crucial points that any manager, in my opinion, should share with their subordinates.
A leader is needed by their subordinates so that they do their job better. For some, this is a counter-intuitive idea — many think that it is the leader who owns their employees while not owing anything to anyone. But when you understand that it is not so and that you, a subordinate, can use any leader according to their functions, team interaction improves. Therefore, let’s talk about the responsibilities of a leader to a subordinate.
Give a purpose
It is the central aspect since a person who does not understand the system cannot produce a goal for themself out of nowhere. If you allow your subordinates to set goals for themselves, you create a revolutionary situation instead of doing it yourself. It will come back to haunt you later.
Think broad: where to study, what material resources to use, and where to get colleagues who will help. There are a lot of things that the word “resource” implies.
Provide the scope of responsibility
- How the goals we are walking towards are built;
- What will happen to us when we reach the aim, and what will happen if we do not;
- What each of us is and is not responsible for; and
- What are the adjacent scopes of responsibility, and so on.
If it is crucial to work on something thoroughly in business, then this will be the scope of responsibility. In places where we drew the line of obligations indistinctly, a mess is bound to start.
Give feedback on goal achievement
When there is no feedback, a person quickly loses the motive for action. They don’t do what you need them to do, and they’re deeply demotivated — because they don’t understand if the company needs what they are doing. The person may also not know what the company thinks about their accomplishments. “Maybe they think I’m actually not very good.”
Feedback is a super skill, and not only for the leader. For more details on how to give feedback to advance a person towards the goal, check the article “How a designer should give and receive feedback.”
What do I mean by “goal”?
In my opinion, “goal” is a highly overrated word since it is just some point towards which we are going.
In fact, the goal is the answer to the question: “Why do this, where will we go, and what will we get for it?”
You need to be able to answer sincerely and in such a way that it cannot be falsified. That is because when you move towards the goal, at some certain moment, you will understand that the goal is outdated, and you need to set a new one. But how? To do this, you need to understand your current state. And if you suddenly lied to yourself, God forbid, then you will have problems at that moment.
It is essential that in your contract between the manager and the subordinates, the answer to the question “Why?” is identical, so both you and them need everything to be done for the same purpose.
In other words, the goal should be common — for the manager and the subordinate. To me, it sounds this way: What will our merit of success be? How do we know that we are going where we want? Do we really want all of this?
For example, we all need our company to make more money. If that’s true, then when a company makes more money, we all get better.
Or, for example, we do it because we are a research company, we are all scientists, and we really want to know how the world works. It is vital to all of us, including the person who sets the goal and to the one who takes over it.
In this sense, half (if not more) of the issue’s resolution is that someone does not lie to himself along the way and does not lie to their subordinates. If the manager did not give the employee a goal in the contract, then they failed the manager’s quest.
The same goal may sound different
Now let’s talk about goal setting keeping in mind what gives us energy. I call the power we need to want to work mana. In games, it gives magical power. In life, it motivates to work.
When we set a goal for a person, we actually tell them something like this: “If you do this, you will get this sort of mana,” because different people have varying motivation sources. I have a theory that there are six motivations for work:
1. Priority, skills improvement
“We will be the first ones to do something. The whole market will say that those guys were the first to do it.”
2. Process, involvement
If you hear during an interview: “I am not satisfied with being just a person, I want to be part of something cool” or “It is crucial for me to be interested in working with interesting people,” this is it. A person wants to be in demand by the closest group and so that its members say that the person’s skills are important to them. The worker’s life is not meaningless because their associates need them.
3. Duty, ritual
Duty and ritual move people very powerfully; because of them, people do something simply because they think they should do it. It is just important for them to do the same thing every day and perform a specific ritual — so as not to go crazy and give life a form. The older they become, the more critical it is, because you have to keep yourself within the boundaries somehow and not think: “I’ll leave everything, I’ll go somewhere to the North Pole or Bali, so as not to go to the cemetery.”
Result and reward
How do they differ from each other?
4. A reward is when I was doing, and doing, and doing something, and then they gave me some gizmo for it, or I myself received it. For example, I made money. Or fame. It is not very important how I got it. What matters is how much I earned.
5. The result is when it does not matter whether they gave me something for it or not. The main thing is that there is now something in the world that I really wished to implement. For some reason, I needed it. I wanted the world to change in a certain way, for example, so that people do not suffer. Or for people to suffer.
6. Curiosity, self-affirmation
It is a potent driver, especially in tech companies. If this driver is not crucial to an engineer, then they are lousy — don’t hire them. An adequate engineer must assert themself because they have learned something new; this is their modus operandi.
So that is it. When you set a goal, you must understand how it relates to the energy of action. Let me remind you: from my point of view, the goal is the answer to the question: “Why do this, where will we go, and what will we get for it?”
In these terms, the goal becomes a point in the space of values, and we must mark this point so that on the way to it, we get the maximum of the value in which we measure success. We, as active individuals, set ourselves goals so that we would want to keep performing actions. It is just a human trait that works for everyone.
What words do people who have a specific motivation say?
When you, as a leader, set a goal, you must understand well what gives energy to you and the person to whom you formulate this goal. Because the answer to the question “Where will we arrive and what will we get?” can be given in each of the mentioned variants.
How to set boundaries of responsibility
I have a checklist that I use when I give tasks from the role of a manager. I update it from time to time, and now it has 6 points.
Here is why we are doing it, where we are going, and what we get for it
If this point is not there, and we start right away from point 2, it means that we do not think that the person to whom we are giving the task is independent. It means that we will spend a lot of our supervision effort on them. And it is clear why: if the worker does not know why we are doing this, they will not bounce back when they reach a dead end.
This is what you have to do
This point is essential for synchronization. Even if you are talking with an extremely independent person, you need to have a general idea not only of the goal but also of how you will move towards it, even just for the sake of linking his actions with those of other process participants.
General understanding and synchronization
Repeat how you understood the task in your own words
This point is present in any management culture: “Now tell me in your own words how you understood what I have just told you.” It is crucial to repeat it in other words, not the same way — otherwise, the person simply retells what they heard, without any guarantee of understanding it. Why waste time on that? You’ll find out whether it is understood and if your maps of reality matched at that moment or not.
Here are the resources, rights, and limitations. Tell me that you take responsibility for this task
It is a critical point. Usually, with the first three, most manage it somehow. The second is done by everyone, the third — by some. At least some adequate leaders do the first. But almost everyone skips the point, “tell me that you take responsibility for this task explicitly.” If a person did not tell you: “yes, I take responsibility for this task, now it is my task,” then they may continue to think: “The boss wanted something from me, but I did not promise him anything.” They did not come to a resourceful state and did not take responsibility from you. It is a crucial point because responsibility only switches after that. If this is not done, then psychologically, it will pass on. Besides, it is much easier for a person to take on whichever task when he has no responsibility for anything.
This is how I will control you in the process
It is the most challenging part because, as a leader, you need to figure out a way to control. And to come up with it, you either have to set laziness away and dedicate a lot of your time or come up with some criteria. Besides, it is necessary to agree on the requirements, so their understanding matches from both sides
Terminating the contract
This is how we will take this contract from you
In other words — how I will fire you from this task. You need to state from the very beginning: “These are what I consider to be unacceptable boundaries.” The sooner and the better you understand and articulate this, the less likely you will end up firing this person because they will develop a similar understanding of the situation.
There should not be such a situation when it is not clear whose task it is, when it seems to no longer belong to the manager’s responsibilities but is not yet under the subordinate’s control. Such a gradient is unacceptable.
If the task is no longer yours, it should either be finished or given away to someone else, and that someone must explicitly acknowledge in some form (orally or in written form) that yes, now it is their responsibility. They must do it. Otherwise, there will be a situation as in “the gun fired from my side.”
How do you use a supervisor purposefully?
There is another side to this story, and I did not immediately understand it. It is crucial to be able to use the manager as intended when you are a subordinate.
In principle, you can provide all six points that we talked about above (goal, task, contract, and others) yourself, even in the case when the task is set poorly as if out of the blue. I sometimes find myself in such a situation, too. For example, when a client or a partner who is before me in the value-setting chain assigns a task to me poorly.
With experience, I have developed a way to set the task and contract boundaries on my own when I take responsibility for the task. It looks like this:
1. Why are we doing this?
Out of the six points mentioned, this is the only question — because the system’s owner must answer it. The owner alone knows the proper response to the questions: why does this system exist, what it is for, what they want, and how I can help them. Without this, the agreement cannot be reached. If you were not given this information, then you definitely take on more responsibility than necessary.
Then, I set the framework myself, but I agree on them with the one who assigned the task so that we have a common picture:
2. Here’s what I’m going to do
3. Here is my understanding of the task
4. I need such resources and permits to take on this responsibility. I will act under such restrictions
5. These are the points the form in which I am going to report to you
6. Here are the conditions under which I will quit this contract if you violate any of its conditions. This is how you can terminate this contract if I do not fulfill my obligations
It is a rather aggressive position, which, frankly, to which you should not condemn your subordinates. To put it softly, it means that you, as a leader, are not setting tasks very well. However, the employee may need this method not only in the manager-subordinate relationship but also in the contractor-customer or partner-partner collaboration (it does not matter whether you are at a junior or senior position; you must have a synchronized picture of the world. Check out my article about it).
In any case, one must be able to reach the target state of the system. In such an environment, we all understand why we are doing something, what we will get for it, what our responsibilities imply, and how we can synchronize. Then we work for common goals, in a shared picture of the world, and we have every chance of being an effective system.
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