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You Don’t Delegate Well? The Problem is NOT What You Think

Coaches and consultants have been failing clients for a long time when it comes to helping them become better leaders by more effectively delegating.  Many offer tips and recipes like this illustrated wikiHowI’ve done it myself—offered a technical response to what is likely a non technical challenge.  Infrequently, this will do the trick.  For most, the issue is far deeper and calls for an adaptive or developmental change. And change is hard.  

Our individual beliefs and the prevailing mindset at the company conspire to create a powerful Immunity to Change. Happily, change is possible once we understand what really needs changing. In Immunity to Change, Kegan and Lahey offer case after case to demonstrate the deep dive needed to when the change is not a technical fix. This abridged case on delegation is a great example.

The set up:

David (a mid thirties engineer) got promoted to GM reporting to the CEO; things were going very well but he felt overwhelmed for the first time in his career. He identified becoming better at delegating as key.

1) Commitment- David’s desire to become a better delegator, specifically:

  • Getting better at clarifying what he wanted from others;
  • Accepting people’s different approaches to the work;
  • Be willing to challenge people’s thought processes and logic;
  • Supporting small failures as a way to learn.

2) Derailing habits- David came up with this list of what he was doing/ not doing currently:

  • Letting new opportunities distract him, making his list bigger;
  • Taking on so much he was sacrificing sleep, family stuff and hobbies;
  • Not making a distinction between urgent and important;
  • Rarely asking people to help him.

3) Hidden internal commitments- after a few days of reflection, David concluded:

  • He had “fear of missing out” (FoMO) on a good opportunity and realized being independent and capable of anything was part of his identity;
  • He feared letting his team down and felt that he had to be selfless to avoid guilt and feeling selfish;
  • He realized how committed his was to checking every box.

4) The BIG assumption(s)- David had a flash that his three hidden commitments were really a deep seated loyalty to his blue collar roots: “I believe that leadership without doing is ‘overhead’ and worthless. [If I didn’t do the work myself], I would be selfish, lazy and spoiled”.

David’s self identity is totally tied up in being the doer versus the leader who delegates.  He feels like a star when he accomplishes a great deal of work and he places a great deal of importance on the respect he gets from others who see him as a smart problem solver who “rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty”. Can you see how a checklist on how to delegate would do very little for a guy like David?

Maybe delegation is something you struggle with? Can you relate to David’s derailing habits or hidden internal commitments?  Maybe your set is completely different. His story has a happy ending. Read the entire chapter (pgs 125-143 in Immunity to Change) to understand his evolution from doer to extraordinary leader.

Your story can have a happy ending too.

And remember that real change won’t happen if you are immune.

Photo credit: Immunity to Change, Kegan & Lahey pg 128

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