Brandt On Leadership -- Deflection By Delegation

Aug. 18, 2005
Here's the poop on getting rid of dog assignments.

Every MBA program teaches that management is the art of delegation, allowing more tasks to get done as each person's talents are put to their highest and best use by the division of labor, blah, blah, blah. But what these schools don't tell you is that how you delegate is every bit as important as what you delegate -- and may say more about you and your career prospects. In the interest of self-interest, then, consider the four ways you can delegate:

Faux Delegation: A useful management technique in which The Boss appears to grant authority to an employee to manage an important task or project, but in reality retains the final say. Benefits: Very effective in cutting enthusiastic employees down to size and in creating opportunities for The Boss to once again save the day. Dangers: Talented employees eventually catch on and either stop making decisions altogether or simply leave. Upshot:( Think about it): If these troublemakers are talented enough to make decisions without you, they're also probably good enough to replace you. Better to get rid of them now before senior management sees them in action.

Delay Delegation: Terrific stall tactic whereby excruciatingly boring or trivial projects with high likelihoods of cancellation are assigned to hopelessly overworked employees, such as Smith. Benefits: If asked, The Boss can say "I've got Smith on that right now." Or, in the unlikely event that said project moves up on senior management's priority list, Boss can exclaim, "Damn that Smith! He's been working on this for 13 months already!" Dangers: Smith may take delegated assignment seriously, affecting other parts of his work. Upshot: It's Smith, for cripes sake. If he was doing anything important, you wouldn't have bothered him in the first place.

Recrimination Delegation: A vital strategy for projects you know will become either tar babies (i.e., the more you touch them, the more stuck you become) or hand grenades (i.e., supervising the CEO's just-graduated daughter in her first job). Handle this assignment the same way you would any other high explosive, by passing it onto a subordinate (any subordinate) as quickly as possible. Benefits: When The Inevitable happens, you'll be at least five cubicles away. Dangers: Shockwaves from CEO's explosive reaction to The Inevitable may generate career concussions across several management layers, including yours. Upshot: What other choice do you have?

Reverse (or Upward) Delegation: Toughest delegation feat to achieve, representing the management equivalent of landing a triple axel onto a moving limousine. Requires moxie to deftly turn your Boss's attempted delegation of a task into a reverse delegation of another preliminary task back to her, e.g., "I'll be happy to take the lead on the Cruickshank account. Could I get your notes from the McTavish account -- because it's just like Cruickshank -- and you did such a great job turning them around." Even though you both know that there are no McTavish notes, the rules of corporate politics dictate that you must pretend that there are, and so the attempted Criuckshank delegation is moot until your boss comes up with the goods. Benefits: Prevents an enormous amount of work from hitting your desk. Dangers: Eventually she may just fire you for the hell of it. Upshot: If you keep good enough records, you can go to her boss, and claim Recrimination Delegation.

Just be careful he doesn't call you "Smith."

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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