Harvard Business Review published an article by Sabina Nawaz this week on some challenges managers face when they delegate work to their staff. The gaps identified with team members being able to perform the tasks successfully included a lack of critical thinking, a lack of initiative, a lack of quality and a lack of speed.

While these are valid concerns, some times the issue is that we avoid delegating activities to team members. This might be a valid response if the outcomes from past delegations were bad but past poor performance could be addressed by the guidance provided in the HBR article. But some times we might not have even tried to delegate work which could have been successfully performed by our team members.

What might cause this reluctance?

While there might be many causes, one of the more compelling ones is the fear of the negative impacts on us when delegated work is not completed successfully. We could play it safe and choose to only delegate rote tasks, thus guaranteeing that there will never be a failure. Unfortunately that eliminates one of the key benefits to a delegee of taking on work which is their personal growth.

When we choose to delegate work to our team members which they have not performed in the past, we are testing a hypothesis that they should be capable of doing so. We hope that with our support and that of their peers they will be able to successfully complete the work within acceptable time or quality constraints but there are no guarantees of this.

If our manager has cultivated a culture of psychological safety within their teams, we probably won’t worry too much about the personal impacts of delegated task failure, so long as there was a reasonable likelihood of success in our team members performing the work and the stakes are not so high that we needed the buy-in of our manager to delegate the work.

But if our manager doesn’t take bad news well, prefers to play it safe, or encourages unhealthy competition and ridicule within their teams, we will think twice about delegating challenging work. We will prioritize our short term safety over the long term benefits of developing our team members. And this in turn will reduce their intrinsic motivation which increases the risk that we will lose some of our best staff.

We are responsible for creating psychological safety within our own teams but if our manager doesn’t act the same way the impacts of that will cascade down. And if safety isn’t prioritized at the top of the company, the resulting snowball effect might hurt the entire organization.

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