February 24, 2018

Does delegation go up or down?

Group discussing plansDoes delegation mostly go up or down your organisation? Seriously.

The art of effective delegation is perhaps the poor relation of management and leadership practice—not very exciting to study—but nevertheless very important.

So often, I meet leaders or even whole management teams who say they can’t delegate any more work because their team members are too busy already. And so they overload themselves and don’t have the capacity to take on the higher level—and perhaps unfamiliar—challenges they should taking on.

The thing is that’s really backwards: It means delegation flows up the organisation not down. If our people can’t handle any more work, it means they don’t have a big enough team or they’re not effective at delegating or need help with the task. The answer to that is to help them learn to delegate more effectively and perhaps find more people, not take on more work ourselves.

If we want to evolve and grow, we should be pushing work down the organisation not lifting it up, building strength in the team as required to make that possible.

What’s the difference between espoused theories and theories in use?

Group in discussion at computerThe short answer is ego.

Organisations, teams, and individuals (including ourselves) have a habit of claiming to operate according to a set of theories that apply to our work. With the best of intentions, we set out to do our business based on a set of assumptions we would like to be true.

In fact, observation of what actually happens will usually reveal something different. In a perspective first articulated by Chris Argyris, we operate according to a rather different set of assumptions—our “theories in use.” It’s these theories-in-use that govern what is really done.

For example, espoused theories might be around customer service. In some organisations, unfortunately, the theories in use might have more to do with profit maximisation. The result is a debilitating disconnection between what management claims to be about and what it’s really about.

When challenged on this, leaders will typically resist admitting what drives them isn’t what they would like it to be. Their ego won’t let them.

Unaddressed, ego will maintain the discrepancy between espoused theories and theories in use, preventing the organisation (or the person) from really understanding itself, in turn preventing it from adapting and changing and growing.

An important role of leaders is to overcome this tendency, both in themselves and in others.

How closely aligned are your theories in use and your espoused theories? Can you see any gap between how you say you operate and how you really operate?

Another way this manifests can be summarised by “we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.”

Time to reflect on our actions perhaps.

Asking the right question

Group in discussion at computerThere’s no such thing as the right question, of course, but some enquiries contribute more to moving things on than others.

It’s worth thinking about…

What’s your intention when you ask a question – helping things along in the direction they need to go in for the benefit of everyone, or making a point to enhance your position?

Both have their place, I suppose.


It’s good to be clear about your aim.

And if it’s to move things on, there’s a skill in asking just the right question to pick things up where they are and carry them on to the next step.

How well do you do that?

You can’t really assess your staff…

Four business people in a discussion… unless you’re sure you’ve provided effective leadership.

If you’re looking for the people who work for you to be self-motivated and highly productive, you can’t sensibly begin to assess whether they are or not, unless or until you’re sure you’ve provided good leadership.

Otherwise your actions (or inactions) are a bigger factor than their character.

And it’s probably not a question of just telling them what to do.

Yes, you may well need to be demanding, but the key point is, is the direction you are providing clear, or at least are any ambiguities clearly understood and balanced?

If not, the inertia caused by lack of direction will be the dominant factor.

And you won’t really know whether your people are any good or not.

And, of course, with the right leadership…

Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.

Suspending your assumptions: Are you willing?

Senior businesswoman thinkingWe all have assumptions—beliefs about the world. We hold them pretty tight usually. We act in accordance with these beliefs, often rather unaware we’re doing so. Indeed, they tend to become part of who we are.

The result is our sense of identity gets tied up with our assumptions.

And so…

We don’t like to have them tested, much less found to be untrue. That feels personal.

And yet…

If our assumptions are wrong, our decisions are wrong, and we’re heading for a fall, or problems with other people.

Strangely perhaps, many people and organizations are quite unwilling to examine their own assumptions. Like much else, it’s an ego thing—too much indignity involved.

If we’re brave—with a strong sense of self—we can choose to “suspend” our assumptions, figuratively hanging them up for all to see. We can declare what we are assuming and put that to the test.

Not many are willing and brave enough to do this. Not many are secure enough in themselves. Not many are willing to not know, or even to be wrong.

Are you?

Better decisions beckon.

A strange combination of short-termism and inertia

Supertanker under wayI hadn’t thought of it quite like this before…

We’re used to the idea that bigger organisations tend to have more inertia than smaller ones. All other things being equal, it’s harder to turn a supertanker than a speedboat.

The thing is, there is another issue…

Larger organisations tend to more driven by the need to achieve short-term results.

So there’s a double effect…

Not only are big organisations slow to turn, they’re less likely to try to. No wonder things get out of kilter.

And change mainly comes through new companies.

A pity when bigger organisations have so many more resources.

The trouble with profiling

Informal meetingWell, one of the troubles with profiling…

In forming teams, it’s a good idea to bring together complementary skills and personality types. Diversity brings performance, though it may not be comfortable at first.

So we reach for the psychometric tests—how handy to be able to profile people and select them for roles in teams.

But there’s a problem…

Actually, probably several problems, but let’s focus on one…

Unless we’re very careful, the use of profiling strengthens the belief in team members that they don’t need to change; that they don’t need to develop their flexibility. After all, they’ve been told they’re an xyz, and perhaps even encouraged to play to their profile, to be an xyz to the full—to avoid flexibility, in fact.

In letting this situation persist, we make a fundamental error…

For a team to be successful, it needs to learn, and for a team to learn, it needs its members to be searching out their individual development, not staying in their boxes.

Otherwise one of the conditions for learning and growth in an organisation—personal mastery (responsibility for one’s own change)—isn’t present.

We’ve taken it away with our profiling.

Do you speak the language of resistance?

Three senior managers“Culture change program”

“Public sector reform”

“Get well program”

We hear these phrases all the time. We might even use them ourselves.

But there’s a problem…

Using language like this, the hearers need to accept that what they were doing yesterday was wrong. Human beings don’t really do that. Instead, we’ll likely stay just the same tomorrow as we are today, in order to prove that we were right yesterday and had no need to change.

Talk about “culture change program” or “public sector reform” or “get well program” and we’re liable to build up resistance to what we hope to achieve. We’re “programming” it.

Best not to put people in the position where they have to accept there’s something wrong before they’ll do something right.

Much better just to talk about the specifics of what you want, without reference to what you don’t want.

That’s if you want to avoid resistance anyway.

It’s all about the egos.

Universal truth or just your worldview?

Woman reflectingIt comes as a bit of a jolt: What you thought was something which was true everywhere—that always applied—turns out to be just part of your map, a piece of your programming, in fact.

It’s a healthy shock, of course, and one I’ve got more used to—enough to be more alert to the possibility that what I thought was a foundation principle is in fact an area of shifting sand.

Here’s what I’ve found though…

The more fundamental the principle, the more likely it is it really does apply everywhere, and the more sure you can be that it will.

A good reason for working at a deeper level—more chance of being right.

Enabling learning—it’s all about the egos

Group of professional peopleRead the literature on organizational learning and you’ll find convincing descriptions of how fear or embarrassment impedes learning by individuals and teams. When something doesn’t turn out as expected, it’s a very human reaction to seek to cover up the failing—to step past it somehow—and then cover up that we’ve done that.

Repeat the process a few times and we enter the territory of what some people “skilled incompetence,” artful ways of consistently protecting ourselves from threat at the expense of inhibiting our learning. (This is Chris Argyris country.) Sure we might really be in danger, but usually, we overdo the fear and the embarrassment beyond the likely consequences.

In short…

Our egos make us defensive and get in the way of our learning. Now, we need our egos, because if we didn’t have them, we couldn’t function.

But they need managed…

Much of the literature advocates process approaches to overcoming these difficulties i.e. thinking head stuff—clever intellectual and conversational techniques to address the problem.

Really there’s an easier way…

Get the human connection right with your team and you’ll assuage the egos and neutralize the fear and embarrassment, thus enabling the learning they truly need.

Get the humanity right with yourself and you’ll sooth your own ego, and let in the learning you truly need.