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Delegate Wisely

I seldom watch television news, but I like to read about what happens there. So I learned of Michael Brown, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and his unfortunate reply when someone from CNN asked him about the situation at the New Orleans convention center. He didn’t know anything about it, even though the networks had highlighted the dire situation at the center for about twenty-four hours.

Well I wouldn’t expect the director of FEMA to watch CNN during a crisis like that. If he’s taking time to watch television, he’s definitely not doing his job. If his organization’s running well, he has an assistant who gives him the information he needs before he updates the nation on his agency’s response to the hurricane. If the information’s not available, the assistant reminds him: “And sir, if they ask you something you don’t know, tell them we’re doing everything we can, as fast as we can.”

Clearly FEMA was not a well-run organization, and Mike Brown did not have an assistant to remind him what to say. Management experts will analyze the breakdown at FEMA for a long time, but we can say now that Michael Brown didn’t delegate wisely. From what we can see, he didn’t delegate key tasks at all. A breakdown follows, because one person can’t do everything. We know that an organization without wise delegation can’t function well.

Effective delegation of responsibility works much the same in most settings. Let’s switch our view to a business enterprise. Think about instances of effective and ineffective delegation in your own workplace. What do you (and others) do when you delegate wisely? What do you avoid? Here are three initial points:

~ Work with people you trust.

~ Listen carefully to what they say.

~ Involve yourself with the work they do.


Let me make a few remarks about working with people you trust. I don’t have anything new here, just reminders of what we already know:

~ Keep your word.

~ Expect honesty and openness from the people who work for you.

~ Keep lines of communication open and active.

~ Expect great things, but also give people room to make mistakes.

~ Ask for help when you need it, and expect others to do the same.

In all of these principles, you make yourself and those you work with worthy of trust. People who trust each other can get a lot done together.


Listening is your main communication tool if you want to stay in touch with what is happening right now. If you listen carefully to people’s reports, you’ll hear problems, proposals, and important information that you need to know.

The manager’s everyday questions are: What do you need from me? How can I make your job easier? What can I do to make you more productive? In a good working relationship, where communication comes easily and the manager is in touch, the manager won’t even have to ask these questions. The responsible person knows what the manager needs to know, raises current issues, and the conversation begins.

The first quality of a good leader is to be a good listener. Of all the communication skills, it is probably the most difficult. It requires at least as much discipline and concentration as writing. You have to engage with the speaker and be ready to respond. Good listeners demand a lot of themselves.

Let’s compare listening and reading as information gathering tools for a moment. You can ask people to put everything in written reports, but how timely is the weekly status report? A detailed report takes time to write, and people don’t like to put bad news or troublesome problems in writing. To get a detailed and realistic picture of what’s happening right now, you need to talk to people.

Here are a few practical points you can use in any work setting:

~ Create opportunities for listening. Informal, short meetings and one-on-one conversations give people a chance to talk.

~ Ask questions about what’s going on, and mean it. People love to talk about the work they are doing. Genuine interest is rare, and people respond to it.

~ Ask good follow-up questions. That affirms your interest, confirms you’ve been listening well, and encourages the speaker to expand on important issues.

~ Listen for problems and issues that require coordination. That’s where you can make people’s jobs easier: when you coordinate their work flow with others’ work flow.

The great thing is that when you give yourself over to these activities, you benefit from being generous to others. So, when you’re a leader, take time to listen to what others have to say. The people who work for you want to make you look good, but they can’t do it if you close them out. Interestingly, you let them in when they talk. And after you have invited them in and listened to them, they’ll listen to you and work hard for you down the line.


I know a school director who trains and supervises teachers. She visits the teachers’ classes regularly. The teachers appreciate the chance to talk with her about how the class is going. Yes, she goes to make sure things are going okay, but the teachers don’t feel she’s looking over their shoulders. She offers some on-the-job training, stays in touch, finds out what they need to make the classes go better.

It’s the same with writing. A writer works alone during much of the book development process. So a writer always wants a good editor at the end. The editorial process is built into book development, not because editors think writers won’t get it right, but because it is the best way to complete a project. The publication improves when writer and editor communicate well, when they collaborate to create the best possible book for the customer.

In both cases – classroom teaching and publishing – supervisors engage themselves in ongoing work. We all know about the manager in Dilbert: he’s out of touch and slows things up at every turn. A good leader knows what’s needed and offers a welcome assist. With good management, a collaborative model of leadership is built into the process of delegation.

To Conclude

The consequences of not delegating wisely can be pretty bad. People die unnecessarily in the aftermath of a hurricane. A corporation goes bankrupt because no one but the perpetrators knew about the financial chicanery going on. An army loses its fighting effectiveness because its leaders don’t listen to the soldiers and officers in the field.

Closer to our workaday experiences, we know that poor delegation has a lot of smaller effects. Schedules slip or don’t get written to begin with, bottlenecks develop, strained working relationships cause low morale. All of these affect productivity. When productivity goes south, call a holiday – and the management consultants!

The odd thing about delegation is that it happens all the time, in the messy world of everyday work. It’s informal. Lines of authority change. Friendships go through good and bad times. Projects change, some things get done and others don’t. In the midst of a confusing environment with subtle signals, it’s useful to stay with some simple principles that hold in all settings: work with people you trust, listen carefully to what they say, involve yourself with the work they do. All three of these principles point toward healthy and productive working relationships. And within that kind of relationship, wise delegation comes naturally.



Grew up in the Upper Midwest, now live in greater Boston. Taught politics in a previous life, now work as a technical writer and illustrator. Other interests: athletics, flying, outdoor activities, writing about politics.

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