Empowerment vs. Impoverishment: How to delegate without suffocating in the attempt?

All bosses delegate mechanical and routine tasks such as information searches. But how many dare to actually delegate decision making?

One of the great challenges of any leader is getting others to do things. The delegation of tasks such as information searches and other routine processes is common and is done quickly. However, when it comes to delegating decision-making authority, things get more complicated. This is where empowerment arises, about which so much has been written (and not always well).

Ultimately, the concept is very simple. It is that each decision is made at the lowest possible level of the organization, without affecting the quality of the decision. When it is not delegated, decisions begin to accumulate at the top, generating bottlenecks and high levels of stress in managers. But delegating is not easy. Immediately, we are assailed by doubts: “Will this collaborator be able to decide? What if he makes a mistake? What if…?”

When we ask ourselves the question of “how far to delegate”, we discover a certain kind of trade-off between two conflicting objectives: 1) the agility that a decision closer to the point of contact gives us, and 2) the quality that the decision can achieve if it is scaled to higher levels with a more global vision of the situation.

This already provides us with some guidelines to determine whether or not it is convenient for us to delegate decisions. If agility and speed of response, proximity to the client or local knowledge are the competitive advantage of the business, we should delegate more. If, on the contrary, the key is costs, the optimization by synergies between areas or the efficiency of transversal processes, then we should delegate less.

If we need both, like most mortals, then we will be challenged to delegate to an appropriate point. To guide us in this choice, let’s look at the three key questions of effective delegation.

What are we delegating for?

It is essential, first of all, to understand the reason that leads us to delegate a decision. And this understanding must be shared by the two parties that participate in the empowerment process: the one delegated to (delegatee) and the one who delegates (delegator).

The delegatee: must be able to build a clear vision of the business. Otherwise, they will never be able to make decisions aligned with the objectives of the organization. The delegator must be willing to share decisions with those to whom they delegate and must clearly explain why that information is important. This way, they can get the delegatee to share these concerns and act accordingly.

The delegator: although it might sound paradoxical, the one who delegates is not always clear about why they do it. And without this understanding, the delegation is likely to be only formal, but not effective. In fact, the boss will continue to monitor all of their collaborator’s choices, letting them do it when they perceive that they have made the right decision (or, rather, the decision they would have made) and correcting them when this does not happen, generating loss of time for the delegator and a lot of frustration for the delegatee.

What is delegated?

Once both have understood the reason for the delegation, it is necessary to deal with the content. That is, specify which components of the decision, if not all, will be delegated. Here it is possible to identify different partial forms of delegation.

True empowerment requires a full delegation of authority. No one must preserve the power of veto, permission or revocation of decisions made within the pre-established terrain.

Trust (by exception or doubt): to trust is to delegate the decision authority for all cases in which certain exceptions are not registered, or when the delegated decision maker has no doubts about which is the correct option. This process is very useful when training a future decision maker. However, it is usually harmful if it persists, since it does not allow the decision maker to be trained at the points of exception that are probably critical for the business.

Authorize (by ranges): to authorize is to establish amounts or levels of specific risks within which the delegatee may decide. If these ranges are exceeded, the decision must be escalated to the higher level. This partial delegation process is also called Delegation of Authority, or directly DOA.

Confer (by default): to confer is authorizing a person to decide but requiring them to keep their superior (or another agent) informed, who preserves veto power over their choice.

Note that none of these formats imply a delegation of decision authority. Actually, they are devices frequently used in organizations to hide high levels of concentration under a banner of empowerment.

True empowerment requires a full delegation of authority. No one should preserve power of veto, permission or revocation of decisions made within the pre-established terrain. This does not mean there are no instances of review, control and learning. But, except in exceptional cases, these must occur after the execution of the decisions.

If they occur before and imply a possibility of revoking a collaborator’s decision, it is a veto, with which we return to the partial delegation scheme and that is not empowerment.

How is it delegated?

Once the reasons are understood and the scope is agreed, it is necessary to ensure that the interactions and feedback processes within the delegation process generate trust between the parties. This implies a double challenge. On the one hand, to motivate the autonomy and self-confidence of the delegate. On the other hand, to whom you delegate, maintaining the impression of control of the business and of trust in the collaborator.

Building trust requires a process of learning and permanent feedback, especially during the early stages of the delegation. Some very simple expressions can destroy the whole process from the very beginning: “Why on Earth would you do that?” or “Why didn’t you inform me?”

In short, delegating requires understanding that things will be done differently from our way. Stepping aside from the decision process is a great challenge we must face as managers. Like most cultural aspects of organizations, empowerment is not learned, it is contagious. Therefore, we must start with ourselves.

Gastón Francese
Partner at Tandem.

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