How leaders can improve delegation and accountability

Do you struggle with delegation and holding your team members accountable? Consider this advice for a more fulfilled and productive team
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If you’re like many of my IT leadership coaching clients, your two biggest management challenges are how to delegate more effectively, and how to hold people accountable for delivering results when you do delegate.

These have been core challenges for most of my clients for the past ten years. And they have become even more acute since most of us started working remotely last spring. If you struggle with these issues, read on for some advice.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Delegate to develop your staff

Most IT managers at all levels delegate far less than they can and should. Here are the two most common reasons managers fail to delegate:

  • They do not use delegation as a staff development tool. Instead of delegating stretch assignments and using their time to mentor staff through projects, they do the work themselves.
  • They wait to delegate until they believe the staff member is able to perform the assignment with little or no supervision.

Sound familiar? These situations create a vicious cycle because you’re often left feeling that you don’t have anyone to delegate to.

[Help your team be more intentional about time and energy. Read also: COVID-19 leadership lessons: 5 ways to help your team recharge. ]

You might worry that team members will think you are shirking your responsibilities by delegating more challenging work. In reality, managers who aggressively delegate work are often surprised by how pleased their team members are to take on new responsibilities and more challenging work. This shows your team members that you care about their career and trust them to do good work. It also maximizes your team’s performance and portrays you as a highly promotable manager.

Managers who aggressively delegate work are often surprised by how pleased their team members are to take on new responsibilities and more challenging work.

If you still see too much risk in delegating such work, consider this: Your time and energy as a manager are better spent mentoring your employees to succeed at new tasks and to acquire new skills than in doing such work yourself.

A word of caution: When you delegate stretch assignments to help people grow their skills, you also need to create conditions of accountability to ensure that work gets done as expected.

Create conditions of accountability

Your team members expect to be fairly and consistently held accountable for their performance. When you behave inconsistently, perhaps allowing some people to under-perform at the expense of more successful team members, you reduce your effectiveness as a manager.

Here are three ways to create and maintain an environment of accountability for your team:

1. Communicate clear and credible expectations

Have you ever given a team member what you thought were clear instructions, only to learn later that they heard something entirely different? The key here is that communication requires interaction, where you test with active listening to ensure that your team members understand your meaning in the way you intend.

The process is the same, whether you’re working remotely or face to face. Ask the person what their next steps will be, or how they plan to move ahead as a result of the conversation. This works in video, phone, or in-person meetings. If they can’t answer that question, either ask them to think it over and get back to you by end of day, or ask leading questions to coach them toward their next steps.

The “credible” part of this step also requires interactive communication. Sometimes you may assign work with either a scope or timeline that leaves a team member doubting that your expectation is realistic.

Some will raise the issue and explore it with you. Others will walk away from the conversation determined to do their best but not fully committed to delivering the desired result. In such situations, strive to ensure agreement on expectations. This reduces risk and enhances your relationship with team members. Using the active listening process described above will help you do this.

2. Create compelling consequences

This includes both positive and negative consequences. The best strategy is to create them throughout the year, not just at performance and salary review time.

Many leaders struggle to create compelling positive consequences. Consider the motivational impact of offering interesting project assignments. Here are some examples:

  • Attendance at outside events or even internal meetings
  • Representing the team at meetings
  • Creating presentations or “show and tells” of project work
  • Tackling a proof of concept with a new product or technology

When negative consequences are required, consider these approaches:

  • Express your disappointment in their performance
  • Explain the negative impact of such performance
  • Decline a request for a perk such as attending a training program or taking advantage of flex time

Recognize that what is compelling for one team member may not be for another. Spend time and effort learning what’s important and valued by each of your team members and use that understanding to craft positive and negative consequences designed specifically for them.

Some of you may feel less inclined to invoke negative consequences during the pandemic. But if you consistently use the framework described here to delegate and create compelling consequences, your team should feel that you are treating them fairly and professionally. Failing to use this approach could result in ineffective team performance that reflects poorly on everyone.

3. Focus on facts and observable behavior

You will be seen as a fair and effective leader when your feedback and comments reflect real data and evidence; less so when you introduce interpretation and projection. For example, telling a team member they need to improve their attitude or be more aggressive begs interpretation and leaves room for disagreement.

Instead, tell them that their constant stream of negative comments in meetings inhibits creative problem-solving, or that they need to speak with colleagues when deliverables fall behind rather than sending cryptic emails after the target date has passed.

As with active listening, this approach works in both remote in in-person work environments. The key is to reference specific, observable behavior – preferably more than one occurrence.

Putting it all together

When you delegate and create conditions of accountability, you enhance your effectiveness as a leader. As a result, your team members are more likely to grow, deliver high-value results, and enjoy working with you.

While doing that is important when you’re all working in the same office, it becomes even more critical in the remote working environment.

When you and your team members are all working from home via phone, video conferencing and Slack channels, it is even harder to delegate as much as you need to and to effectively hold people accountable for consistently delivering expected results.

Put these techniques to use and watch your remote team improve their performance and enjoy their work, in spite of the social and physical distance.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Bob helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict. He provides online training as well as group and 1:1 coaching programs that get problems solved fast.