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A delegating leadership style: The big wins, and the big challenges

The delegating leadership style: What’s the definition?

Across the spectrum of leadership styles, 11 core styles have been identified, often operating as some mix of the eight core tenets of a leader. There are variations including the democratic leadership style, the authentic leadership style, and the (gasp) Elon Musk leadership style. (You might need Twitter and a good meme designer for that one to work best.) 

In this piece, we’re going to discuss the delegating leadership style. Since you probably have some context for the word “delegate,” this leadership style will align with that definition -- namely:

“A delegating leadership style is a low task and relationship behavior approach to leadership where a leader empowers an individual to exercise autonomy. Employing this approach entails providing the individual with the big picture, then trusting them to deliver agreed-upon results.”

This is a crucial leadership style because providing employees with autonomy is one of the great employee motivators in the entire management canon. When leaders involve themselves with every little detail of their team members’ work, they risk creating threats to those people’s autonomy. (This is why micromanaging feels so offensive.) However, when leaders give employees the time and space to do their work, unfettered by interruptions, they send a much more rewarding signal that they trust and value the person’s ability to get things done.

In fact, to borrow a lesson from COVID, employee engagement scores -- which had been flat or declining for years before the pandemic -- actually went up for the first 12 months of COVID. Why? Because although things were admittedly chaotic, employees at home had more autonomy. If they had nothing scheduled over the lunch period, they could go for a walk, or do something with their kids/family. That’s not common in offices, and the increased autonomy led to increased engagement. It was hardly a good time -- there were dozens of challenges -- but the increased autonomy was one major positive. 

A delegating leadership style means you help employees increase their autonomy and self-efficacy. But there are some pitfalls on the path to getting this leadership style right. Let’s go a bit deeper.

Table of contents

What is delegated management style? What does it look like in practice?

For the leader/manager, the core tenets of the delegating leadership style are:

  • Turns over control
  • Provides the “big picture”
  • Allows the individual to make task-related decisions
  • Monitors activities
  • Reinforces results
  • Remains accessible

For the employee, then:

  • Consistently performs this task at a high standard
  • Can operate autonomously
  • Is committed to and enjoys performing the task
  • Keeps key stakeholders informed of task progress
  • Shares both good and bad news
  • Is aware of their task-related competency and skill

Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard, who first popularized the delegating leadership style, explained it as “handing off responsibility from a leader to a worker”.

Where would the roadblocks be here?

Return to some COVID lessons: in the early parts of the pandemic, many companies declared “work from home forever!” Now, once the pandemic started to wane in some countries (before variants), many bosses flipped that script, and went to: “We need you back in the office at least three days per week.” Hmm. This created a common narrative: maybe work is largely about control. We know that micromanagement has persisted for generations, and we know that, broadly speaking, work is often about control. Consider this paragraph, for example:

The fear of creating this very situation, executives explained to us, is why so many of them focus on the tangible instead of the human. Having an open dialogue around important strategic issues simply feels too risky. “We feel like we would lose control,” they told us. “Resistance to our plans would surface.” In fact, psychology and experience tells us, the reverse is true: A lack of genuine, reciprocal interaction and the feeling of imposed change increases employees’ anxiety and resistance. The theme of control is particularly interesting given the stated aspiration of most organizations to empower their people. The most common chief executive exaltation we hear is “We must be more innovative, agile, and adaptable.” Yet when we engage with executives we find one of the biggest drivers toward the tangible is the fear that without a firm grip anything could happen.

In order to promote a delegating leadership style, the first thing managers need to do (see above) is “turn over control.” How realistic is that?

The first question to ask: Why is delegation important in leadership?

If you’re trying to embrace a delegating leadership style but fear losing control, you need to understand the potential benefits of delegating more. What if, for example, you could make more money? Maybe you could. Based on one study in the legal profession:

Looking across partners who work with associates, we find that delegating work to associates allows the median partner to earn more than 20% more than they would otherwise. Top lawyers, who have the most skill to leverage, earn at least 50% more. We also show that these returns have increased substantially over time as a series of new technologies — from Lexis to word processors to email, and so on — have made delegation easier and less time-consuming. In fact, these gains at the top are so pronounced that they may go a long way toward explaining the increases in income inequality among white-collar workers that have occurred over the last few decades.

That research goes so far as to say effective delegation might actually be a contributing factor to income inequality as a whole.

The second reason that a delegating leadership style is important is because it saves you, as a manager, time to focus on bigger-picture issues. However, this brings up another issue with delegation: managers are often confused about what exactly to delegate. Managers need to stop thinking of passing off responsibilities as delegating. If you do, then you will only assign your employees high-level tasks when you don’t have time to do them. Until then, you will continue doing everything yourself. This is not an uncommon behavior. 

When you assign someone a task for the first time — with no prior training — simply because you are unavailable to do it, their chances of succeeding are slim. You also run the risk of damaging team morale.

This leads to the most important question: how exactly does one delegate properly and institute a delegating leadership style?

How do you delegate effectively as a leader?

Ideally, this would be the flow of events:

  • Identifying people who can take on more work
  • Training them what the work should look and feel like
  • Giving them context
  • Allowing them to practice in low-pressure situations
  • Working with them
  • Guiding
  • Coaching
  • Taking an interest in their career development

Similarly:

  • A manager looks at the 14 things on his/her plate
  • He/she determines these 3-4 are important, and these 9-10 can wait
  • He/she delegates out the 9-10 and maybe 2 of the 3-4 to high-performers
  • The manager then focuses on moving along projects as they wait for deliverables to evaluate
  • As all this happens, they coach their employees and give feedback

The key elements of a delegating leadership style are coaching and contextualizing the work, what needs to be done, possible ways it could be done (allowing employees some autonomy to find their own path), and some kind of tie around the intersection of “strategy” and “execution.” In this way, a delegating leadership style is almost utopia for a mid-level, front-line manager: they should be taking the strategy, from the upper levels of an organization, and translating that into tasks, for their direct reports. The alignment of strategy and execution should have plenty of delegating, and then as certain employees excel at their work, they can take on additional responsibilities -- and even delegate some of those in the future. The cycle keeps rolling.

Other aspects of a delegating leadership style to consider:

  • Set solid deadlines: This helps people have a framework (guardrails) for what needs to be done and when. It provides structure.
  • Project check-ins: These are easy to set up in most software these days. Set them up and, rather than grilling an employee on tasks, allow them to talk for a while about the bigger picture of the project and where they’re finding pros and cons, challenges and benefits. 
  • Open door: Employees should be allowed to come to you whenever as they’re figuring out the best way to tackle the project. You should be a consistently-available coach. 
  • Paint a picture: If you know what a successful version of the project or task will look like, paint a picture for the employee of that -- now, you don’t necessarily need to tell them every step to get there. They can have autonomy in the process of doing the work. But paint the end goal, and that will provide some clarity. 
  • Don’t be a bottleneck: If you’re getting in the way of delegated projects being completed, you need to look critically at why you’re in such a spot, and get out of the way. If your approval is required for minute elements of a project to move forward, you’re too involved -- and you’re a bottleneck, i.e. a micromanager, to employee autonomy. This is not a delegating leadership style.

Is this your type of leadership style?

Glad you asked! We actually have a post to help you figure this out: “What is my leadership style?” It will lead you to our assessment to determine what motivates you at work. Your results will help you rule out some of the other styles and focus on whether you’re a good candidate for a delegating leadership style -- which, as noted, might help you make more money in your career!

You can also ask for feedback from direct reports, colleagues, and senior leaders to determine whether you already practice a delegating leadership style, or it might be potentially a great idea for you to move towards one. Consider these questions:

  • How would you describe my leadership style?
  • How empowered do you feel to make decisions on your own?
  • How do you feel about the goals I set for our team?
  • How much say do you think you have in the decisions that are made for our team?

Ready to figure out your leadership style? Take your free F4S assessment now.

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