Delegation is an effective leadership and time management tool. It allows us to hand over individual tasks and greater areas of responsibility to capable others enabling us to focus on higher-level work. However, while many think they are delegating they are actually abdicating.
The word delegate means the assigning of powers or functions to another, whereas abdicate means the giving up or relinquishment of power or responsibility. In delegation, we are assigning a person to act on our behalf but in abdication, we are renouncing our right, handing completely over to another.
In recent discussions with a managing director, we were discussing the differences between the two words and the importance of accountabilities. While many in leadership value giving capable others autonomous authority in their roles, sometimes it is more abdication in nature rather than delegation, as per the graphic below.
You will notice that control is central to the management process. On one end it represents intensive control, where managers fail to let go and micromanage their people. This drives skilled people crazy and on the other end is no control—where leaders completely let go, fully trusting another with no oversight nor accountability.
While abdication has its place and is relevant in some situations it can’t be confused with delegation.
One of the most memorable examples of abdication was a business owner who had “delegated” the role of operational management. The manager was left to their own devices, was fully trusted, never actively managed, not accountable, ran his own show and caused great chaos over time. He was never reined in for his sloppy work nor poor leadership of his team. The business owner feared exercising any control at all. What he thought was delegation was pure abdication.
In over 30 years of leadership and management coaching, my experience suggests that effective delegation sits somewhere in the middle of the control continuum. While someone acts on my behalf in the fulfilment of tasks and roles, as the leader I still need to maintain some level of control in that, I guide, support and hold them answerable for their role performance and accountabilities. If I don’t do this, I have set them free to the winds of whim never really knowing that they are doing, how they are performing and hoping things will be okay. Not a great way to manage.
The other item of note is the extent to which management control is required. Someone early in their career or those with shortfalls in certain areas obviously require higher degrees of training and management to those who have shown themselves to be fully capable. However, even those who are deemed to be fully competent in their roles, still require our oversight, support and the knowledge that they are responsible for certain outcomes and are accountable for such.
Effective delegation is about a personal connection with the delegatee and maintaining ones authority to govern and to lead. Abdication is fully letting go and hoping for the best.