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Ways leaders delegate successfully

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Before leaders can successfully and effectively delegate, they need to understand their own resistance.

In Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggest that leaders state their goal and then describe the behaviors that are stalling their efforts. For instance, a senior sales leader might want to delegate follow-up calls to big customers to his sales team, but realizes that he hasn’t updated his notes in the CRM database, or he might simply be in the habit of making the follow-up calls himself before members of the team can get to them.

Kegan and Lahey then suggest that leaders examine these behaviors and ask themselves how they’d feel if they did the opposite.

What if updating the CRM database in a timely manner meant pushing off other, more important activities? What if not calling customers meant that they felt ignored or disrespected, and they took their business elsewhere? These concerns activate the “emotional immune system,” which tries to ward off feelings of fear, overwhelm, loss of control, and disappointment. For the senior leader to start delegating and stick with it, he needs to address these feelings, challenge his own assumptions about “what if,” and try small, low-risk delegation experiments to see whether his assumptions are rooted in the truth or in his desire for safety.

In addition, team members to whom tasks are delegated should undertake a similar process in order to identify their concerns and challenge their own assumptions about what might happen if they take on new tasks, roles, and responsibilities.

Once a leader has begun to shift his or her mindset, it’s time to start shifting behaviors. In my own work as a leadership coach, I have identified eight practices of leaders who delegate successfully:

#1 They pick the right person — and it isn’t always about who can do it. Who needs to develop these skills? Who has capacity? Who has shown interest? Who is ready for a challenge? Who would see this as a reward? Successful delegators also explain why they chose the person to take on the task.

#2 They’re clear about what the person is responsible for and how much autonomy they have. In Drive: The Surprising Science About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink writes that people often want autonomy over task, team, technique, and time. Successful delegators let their team members know exactly where they have autonomy and where they don’t (yet).

#3 They describe the desired results in detail. This includes setting clear expectations about the outcome (“what it is”), how the task fits into the bigger picture (“why we’re doing it”), and criteria for measuring success (“what it should look like when done well”).

#4 They make sure that team members have the resources they need to do the job, whether it’s training, money, supplies, time, a private space, adjusted priorities, or help from others.

#5 They establish checkpoints, milestones, and junctures for feedback so that they neither micromanage nor under-lead.

#6 They encourage new, creative ways for team members to accomplish goals. It’s important for delegators to set aside their attachment to how things have been done in the past, so that they can invite, recognize, and reward novel approaches that work.

#7 They create a motivating environment. Successful delegators know when to cheerlead, coach, step in, step back, adjust expectations, make themselves available, and celebrate successes.

#8 They tolerate risks and mistakes, and use them as learning opportunities, rather than as proof that they shouldn’t have delegated in the first place.

Delegating well helps leaders maximize their resources, ensuring that they’re focusing on their highest priorities, developing their team members, and creating a culture where delegation isn’t just expected — it’s embedded in the culture.

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