Perhaps the most visceral descriptions of work (and sometimes life) I hear from managers go like this: “I feel like that guy doomed to push a rock up the hill forever. There are not enough hours in the day, days in the week or weeks in the year to get it all done. And if I take my eye off the ball for one minute, the whole thing goes south.” Sadly, identification with the ancient myth of Sisyphus is more accurate than many realize, and more dangerous.
In most myths of ordeal, the hero or heroine undertakes a journey and is eventually redeemed — but not Sisyphus, who remains in Hades to this day still pushing his boulder up that hill. His task is never ending, never changing, and he is, therefore, unredeemed.
The same can be true of managers who never learn to delegate and opt to keep their hands on the rock.
A wide range of complaints endemic in business today can be addressed by skilled delegation:
— “I spend my life in meetings! My calendar is out of control.”
— “I want more time for planning and strategy, but I am so caught up in the day-to-day details that it is impossible to make time.”
— “I had a great vacation. I only checked e-mail once or twice a day.”
— “I just lost a manager and do not have a viable candidate. Now I will have to go outside and a lot of people will be angry at me.”
Skilled delegation extends the influence of a leader, develops staff, increases productivity and can actually enable that long sought-after vacation, the one where you don’t check in at all because you know that your staff can handle whatever comes up. In short, delegation gets more hands on that rock, allowing a leader to provide the wisdom of experience while relinquishing the need to be personally involved.
Would you be surprised to know many managers’ hands are on the rock because they are uncomfortable if they are not in control? They complain about their situation, but they are unwilling to trust others to share the burden of responsibility. They feel compelled to be personally involved and “hands on.” And while it is possible for a manager to drive productivity through the “I think-you do” model, it is not sustainable, not scalable and does not develop future leaders.
Effective delegation is a balance — part art and part science. At one extreme, managers talk about delegating but are actually only assigning tasks. At the other, accountability is thrown over the proverbial wall with too little information, influence or support, transforming what could be a simple, albeit essential, development assignment into an explosive career grenade.
Not all accountability can be delegated, and not everyone is ready to take responsibility to deliver on a business outcome. Here are some quick “litmus test” questions to help you discern whether you are assigning tasks or delegating accountability:
— Does your conversation with the team you are delegating to primarily focus on the “what” of the deliverable, or the “how”?
— How much of your attention on the project is based on your direct report’s actual need for your wisdom versus your need to manage the details?
— How much of your calendar time and attention are freed up as a result of the delegated accountability?
— What is the team (or manager) to whom you delegate learning from the assignment?
The question for the modern-day Sisyphus is, “Do I really want to get my hands off the rock?”