Most of the organisations we work with at The Hum have a “flat” structure, i.e. no formalised structural hierarchy. But we do also sometimes help other organisations to find more empowering ways of working within their hierarchical structure. In groups like this, one of the key leverage points we can change is how tasks & responsibilities are delegated. So here’s a 5-minute read about delegation & empowerment. I’ll start with a quick story...
When I lived in New Zealand, it took me a while to get used to their indirect way of communicating. Let's say you ask a Kiwi if they will come to your party tonight and they reply “yeah”. Be warned! “Yeah” does not mean “yes”! In New Zealand: “yeah” means “maybe”. Or sometimes "yeah" means “no, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings”.
It took me a few years to understand this distinction: there’s a crucial difference between “yeah” and “yes”. This lesson has stuck with me: now when I’m collaborating with teams at work, I’m listening for the difference between a half-hearted “yeah...” from a committed “fuck yes!”
After a decision is made, someone has to implement it. In many cases, there’s a handover from the “decider” to the “implementer”. This is a delicate moment! When you have to delegate a responsibility to someone else to implement, they might respond in one of three ways:
Ideally they’ll say “Fuck yes!” They’re bought in, they are enthusiastic, they take ownership of the plan and take responsibility for delivering the intended outcome.
They could say “Yeah, I guess...” – it’s a kind of halfhearted commitment. They’ll do it begrudgingly. Maybe they feel they must comply to avoid negative consequences.
Depending on your work culture, sometimes they will give you a clear “No thanks” – I’m not willing or able to do that.
So in this blog I want to think about what you can do when someone gives you a halfhearted “Yeah” to help them to get to a clear “Yes” or “No”. But before I tell you what I think, stop for a minute and reflect on your own experience. How do you respond when responsibilities are delegated to you?
🛑 Questions for reflection.
Reflect on a recent moment where responsibility was given to you, and you received it with enthusiasm. What was good about that situation? Was there something about the task itself that is attractive to you? Or was it about the relationship between you and the decider? Or the way the decision was made?
Reflect on a recent moment when you responded with “yeah, I guess”: what did you lack? Why did you withhold full commitment? What would have made a difference?
What about a time when you said “Yeah” when you really wanted to say “No”, what stopped you? What could have helped? And when was a time that you gave a “No” that you’re proud of? What gave you the confidence to say “No” in that circumstance?
When “Yeah...” means “No”
Sometimes people say “Yeah” but what they really want to say is “No”. A good clear “No” is super helpful! But a lot of people find it hard to say, especially when there’s a hierarchical power dynamic to contend with.
So if you’re a coach or a manager and you’re working with someone who routinely says “Yeah...” but then fails to deliver on their commitment, perhaps they need your support to say “No”. Maybe they could develop their assertiveness with more encouragement, or they may need to be reassured that there’ll be no negative consequences for denying the request.
When “Yeah...” means “Yes, with reservations”
Sometimes people say “Yeah” and it means “I’m willing to do it but I have some doubts”. In that case your job is to understand the doubts and mitigate them. Maybe they need more hands-on support, or you could split the task into smaller chunks, or you can help rebalance their workload to include more desirable tasks.
Getting to F*ck Yes
If you have to delegate work to me, here’s some approaches you can take that will make it more likely that I’ll embrace the responsibility with enthusiasm:
Before you delegate anything, involve me in the decision making process. At least seek my advice, and ideally let’s think it through together. Example: at The Hum we use the “Task Marketplace” to distribute responsibilities (download it here). It’s a fun, rowdy, complex multiparty negotiation where we’re trying to balance: what I’m good at, what the organisation needs, and what I want to learn about.
Understand my learning goals, and collaborate with me to meet them. If you know what skills I’m trying to develop, you can encourage me to take on tasks that stretch me in that direction. If you’re more experienced in this area, I need you to give me enough freedom to not feel micromanaged, and enough support to not feel overwhelmed. Example: I know that my colleague wants to develop her facilitation skills. I’m facilitating a workshop soon, so I suggested: “do you want to help me as a co-facilitator?” This little nudge of encouragement was just what she needed to move towards her own learning goals.
Give me the right level of detail. For some tasks, I want a complete script, tell me every detail about what you’re expecting, so I can complete it and feel competent. For other tasks, I want to know the high level principles (what is important to you) & objectives (what we’re trying to achieve) and I’ll decide my own approach to get there. Example: Kris volunteered to help on a project. I overestimated his level of experience, so I gave him high-level objectives with no detail about how to achieve them. He floundered because he was out of his depth. Ideally I would’ve given him a more straightforward recipe for his first assignment, and then we’d come back for a more challenging task after he nailed it.
Beware: when you delegate a task to me, I won’t do it the way you would! So don’t freak out, micromanage, give me unsolicited feedback, or withdraw your support. Just check that we’re agreed on the principles & objectives, and that I have what I need to deliver.
Becoming a better delegator
There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for effective delegation, it’s something you develop together in relationship with each of your colleagues. Everyone has different needs & preferences. If your role requires you to delegate responsibilities to people, there’s one thing you can do that can make a tremendous difference to your effectiveness: seek feedback. So here’s one piece of homework for you:
Think about some of the people you’ve delegated to recently. Do you have examples where the delegation has gone poorly (e.g. you were dissatisfied with their delivery)? Take responsibility for your half of the problem: what can you do to get candid feedback from them about how you can improve as a delegator?