Empowering Employees: Delegate!
Trusting skilled employees to take on increased responsibilities
Empowering employees means letting them make decisions and holding them responsible for their actions. Most laboratory owners work with a "top-down" philosophy, meaning they make 95% of the daily decisions. Empowered employees are engaged employees. Engaged employees are more productive and less likely to leave their company, and they boost business much more than those who are not engaged. Research has shown that empowered employees are 87% less likely to leave the company.
Webster's dictionary defines the verb delegate as: "to entrust another; assign responsibility or authority." The statement is simple, but very scary to laboratory managers and owners who believe that they are the only ones capable of making a decision. Delegating basically involves someone dividing their work among the employees and assigning them the responsibility to accomplish the respective tasks.
Once the laboratory leadership has realized that it is impossible for one person to exercise all the authority for making decisions, the question that quickly arises is, "To whom and what do I delegate?" The "whom" part is typically right under one's nose. A top-down organizational model misses out on opportunities to leverage employees' experience and knowledge. Many laboratories woefully underutilize their experienced employees when it comes to sharing everyday decision-making duties. I have written frequently about the eight wastes in business with the acronym "DOWNTIME," where the "N" is for "Not utilizing employees (brainpower)." Not utilizing employees is a failure to tap into the experience and collective knowledge acquired by performing the job over a long period of time. Laboratory employees have a wealth of technical experience and industry knowledge; they should be leveraged and encouraged to deal with daily issues, thus freeing up leadership to pursue business-level needs. The person who receives the delegation of authority should also be accountable for their performance and responsibilities.
Once you have decided who is capable based on skills, wants the authority, and is willing to accept responsibility for their decisions, the question of what to delegate deserves careful consideration as well.
Give an employee too much responsibility and they may not perform as expected. Give them too little and it may look as if you do not trust them. The work delegated must be within their skills and knowledge base; otherwise, they may get frustrated or intimidated. It is suggested that you as the owner or manager assign responsibilities, follow up to ensure that the employee is performing as expected, and build up from there. Keep in mind, though, that some managerial tasks are inappropriate for a manager to delegate to others to perform.
The challenge faced by both managers and employees is that a person may not want to delegate or accept responsibility. Executive leadership coach and best-selling author Ali Stewart identifies eight basic attitudes that serve as barriers to delegation. Take a long look and see if these are applicable to your laboratory. The manager may think:
1. I can do it better myself.
2. My people are just not capable enough.
3. It takes too much time to explain what I want done.
4. If it goes wrong, I'll still be accountable.
5. Delegation reduces my own authority.
6. I'll be shown up if they do too good a job.
7. My people prefer that I make the decisions.
8. Team members want to avoid responsibility (at least at work.)
These eight barriers, once they are recognized by both managers and employees, can be addressed so that everybody wins.
Delegation requires a few guidelines to ensure success. Unfortunately, studies have shown that managers fail more often because of poor delegation than any other cause.
Any delegation should be as specific as possible and understood by all concerned. This will help prevent the employee from repeatedly referring problems to the manager for their opinion and/or decision. In most laboratories, employees are constantly seeking feedback about priority, clarification, and the acceptability of the work in-hand. Be aware that if the delegation is unclear, the employee may not understand the nature of the duties or the results expected.
Management must conduct the proper evaluation of the employee for skills and limitations prior to the delegation of any authority. Delegation for the sake of delegation is doomed to failure if the employee does not possess the technical/decision-making skills that are needed to support the process.
The employee who has responsibility and authority is accountable for the performance and exercise of authority. While success and failure belong to the employee, ultimate responsibility still lies with the manager.
Delegation means giving power to the employee to act independently but within the limits, policies, and procedures of the business. Making decisions that are unethical, immoral, or illegal is bad for business.
Resist the urge to "jump in" and solve the problem or provide an answer. Employees may come to you asking for a decision on a critical matter; your job is not to answer the question, but to guide them to a conclusion that is best for all concerned. Questions such as, "What do you think is best?" and, "What steps do you think we should take?" will build the confidence of the employee and provide you with the satisfaction of knowing they have accountability.
Jesse Harrison, Founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Zeus Legal Funding, offers these simple words of advice regarding delegation: "Resist the temptation to do everything yourself." Looking back at when he started his business, he says that he slowed his growth by not delegating or enlisting the help of others: "If I could go back," he says, "I'd focus on managing the business and outsource all the tedious tasks that took away from my productivity."
About the Author
Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvement in East Hampton, Connecticut.