Consultation and delegation

"To delegate, or not to delegate, that is the question .... "

Consultation and delegation are topics that leaders often struggle with. They may consult in a way that means team members are offended when their views are ignored, and delegate responsibility (which is easy) without delegating real authority (which is hard).

First, let’s get our terms sorted out.

When it comes to who makes a decision, there are four common methods for a team leader to choose from. From the most “controlling” to the least, they are:

  1. Direction: decisions are made with little or no input from team members, and the team gets informed. Full stop. (We are not talking being rude and bossy here. It is important to explain the context behind the decision, communicate well and so on).
  2. Consultation: the team leader actively seeks the team’s views, then makes the decision.
  3. Consensus / Agreement: the team leader actively seeks the team’s views and waits until everyone agrees (or at least doesn’t voice active disagreement) around a particular course of action.
  4. Delegation: the team (eg by vote), or a team member, is handed the authority and responsibility for a decision or a piece of work.

Each of these can work in the right circumstances. But what are the right circumstances?

Baseline rules

From the research, two general rules seem to emerge:

  1. You should probably delegate more than is comfortable for you. And remember, delegating means giving authority to the person, not giving responsibility then constantly checking on whether they have made the same decision that you would have done.

    The evidence shows that decisions made by team members are as good as, if not better than the decision made by the team leader. Of course, it depends what you delegate – which we come onto below.

  2. How “controlling” you should be as the team leader depends on how well the team is performing. Basically, if the team is getting good results and team dynamics are healthy then delegation is the preferred option. It will also develop the team’s skills – and yours if you are a nervous delegator.

    If, on the other hand, the team is not yet getting good results, or the dynamics have turned sour, you probably need to take a more decisive role. As you coach the team, and their results and confidence improve, you can delegate more decision-making to the team.

Saying what's what is OK too

It is also worth saying that the research shows that a directive leadership style, applied with emotional intelligence, can get just as good results as the more participative approaches. People may feel less involved, but actual performance is as good if not better.

Democratic cultures favour the involvement of people in decisions that affect them, but this needs to be weighed against the time involved, existing team performance and so on.

When "consensus" takes the form of vague discussion, without the explicit discussion of different viewpoints, it can be a particularly ineffective way of making decisions Decisions appear to have been made, only to unravel later. Much better for the decision-making process to be clearly spelled out (eg "I value your views, but it's a judgment I have to make in the end, as team leader") from the start.

What should you delegate?

First, delegate everything you think your team can do as well or better than you. You can find out more about how to assign tasks effectively to people here.

Second (with your guidance) delegate responsibilities that will stretch and develop a team member’s skills.

Include jobs you enjoy, as well as those you don’t. But not responsibilities that are absolutely central to your leadership role - such as allocating resources, individual appraisals and performance management.

That’s what you get paid for.

Quick Tip for individuals

Bearing in mind that you should generally delegate slightly more than you feel comfortable with (on the basis that people will step up to the mark and do just as well as you, if not better):

  1. Make a list of every responsibility or decision you think one of your team members can do as well or better than you.
  2. Think of anything you might delegate, or ask a team member to do, that will stretch and develop a their skills.
  3. Without delegating any of your key responsibilities - such as allocating resources, individual appraisals and performance management - pick a couple of responsibilities (and associated authority) to delegate to your high performers. to stretch them and see how they respond.
  4. If that works well, delegate more.

Quick Tip for teams

If the team is performing well, and team dynamics are good, set aside some time at a team meeting to discuss roles and responsibilities as a team - with a view to delegating more so that people will develop their skills. You can use the RASCI model to frame your discussion in a safe way and to capture your conclusions.