From Harvard Management Update
Reprinted with permission
Managers’ common reluctance to delegate responsibility is a topic that has long intrigued Jeffrey Pfeffer, coauthor of Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People.
Pfeffer says that there is mounting evidence that giving people more responsibility for making decisions in their jobs generates greater productivity, morale, and commitment. Yet despite these benefits, many managers are reluctant to cede control. We recently asked Pfeffer, whose research helps explain the reasons for such reluctance, what companies can do to overcome it.
1. What is the most effective step companies can take to encourage managers to delegate more responsibility?
One of the primary ways we learn is by observing what people around us do. So, if I want you to delegate more and micromanage less, then I need to reflect that in my own behavior. The first place every manager looks to determine the most appropriate way to act is at their superiors.
2. How do you persuasively describe the value of delegating to a subordinate?
I don’t think one “describes” the value of delegation, at least as a way of changing behavior. The best thing to do is some form of experiential exercise in which people are “shown” the benefits of delegation and the costs of not doing so. Some of those exercises involve problem-solving exercises in which people learn that not accessing the expertise of others leads to worse solutions. Some of the exercises involve having people be supervised. The most powerful is called “star power” and has people experience what it is to be powerless—something that provokes strong reactions, to put it mildly. Believe me, “telling” people the benefits of delegation has no effect at all, as the failure to follow the advice of the numerous books and articles that do just that attests.
3. Is organizational structure a factor?
Absolutely. It affects behavior in two ways. First, it sends signals to managers about the type of behavior the organization finds most acceptable. For example, in a relatively flat organizational structure where there are few management layers and managers have broad spans of control, people understand that delegation is the norm. Second, in a very real sense, structure either facilitates or hinders delegation by the nature and strength of the boundaries it erects.
One way companies can compel increased delegation is to assign managers larger staffs and more responsibility. The larger a manager’s staff becomes, the less he/she will be able to micromanage them.
4. Is there too much focus being placed on leadership?
Yes, and the problem extends beyond companies to include the business press, but that’s another story. If your organization venerates heroic leaders, then your managers are going to have a natural reluctance to delegate responsibility.
One of the ways companies encourage heroic leaders is by providing them with a host of highly visible trappings, from elegant offices and reserved parking to executive dining rooms and travel on private jets. It’s frequently difficult for managers with such perks to entrust responsibility to subordinates whose trappings are significantly inferior to their own.
Organizations in which the spirit of delegating prevails tend to be those with an egalitarian culture that is manifested in such things as open office arrangements and the lack of status symbols. These help build the sense among workers that they are relatively equal.
5. Can recruiting be employed to encourage delegation?
This is another important step that companies can take. Hiring people who are by nature autocratic will certainly mitigate against building an organization that values teamwork.
How do you determine a candidate’s management style? Unquestionably, the most reliable predictor is past behavior. Management style reflects a certain mindset and therefore is difficult to change. So companies should look carefully at the ways candidates have approached their responsibilities at their prior employers.
Related to past performance is the nature of the management environment in the organizations where the candidate has worked. If they fared well in an organization that’s known to be team-driven, then they’ll likely be comfortable with delegating responsibilities in their new role.