Delegation: Part Negotiation, Part Coaching

If you manage people, you may have noticed that you spend quite a bit of time negotiating with people over timelines, deliverables, and accountability regarding a given task. And, perhaps more often than you like, you delegate a task and instead of job done, you get a long list of reasons why the assignment was impossible to accomplish, along with lots of apologies and mea culpas.
What I have found is missing in delegation negotiations—conversations—is a lack of attention to the strengths and skill level of the person you’re delegating to.
I recently asked my teenage son to design a “simple” Excel form for tracking our clients’ results. I told him the form would need to include current salary, the offer, counter offer, and final result. And good on him, he asked me when I wanted the form, and how much I would pay him for this job. I said today for $20. He said today for $25 because I was expecting an immediate turnaround and he had homework to do. I said OK.
My son, with scant knowledge of Excel, produced a form that included exactly the fields I specified. It didn’t include the client’s name, their title, proposed title, the date, the company they worked for, nothing. I was disappointed. I thought, geez, he ought to be in my head after all these years and be able to extrapolate all the other data required.
In my request, I failed to determine my son’s level of competency and provide him with the appropriate level of context and coaching. I thought he was remarkably brilliant in every little thing, so when he said, “How do you like it? All good?” I apologized for not being clear, and worked with him one-on-one to create the form. Understandably, he was upset that I expected so much with so little direction.
That’s the title of a post my coaching colleague, Sabina Nawaz, wrote on HBR. One of the takeaways from that post is that as managers if you want your delegating efforts to succeed, you have to add coaching. You have to ask the kinds of questions that help uncover your employee’s skill level, and help you determine the time and energy you need to expend to get the results you’re after. And you might have to coach in between delegation and completion. It’s a big fat two-way street.
Those questions – beginning with who, what, when, where, how and why – are similar to those that underpin interest-based negotiation. Coaches call them powerful questions, negotiators call them diagnostic questions.
The benefit of those open-ended questions is not only the discovery of skill level, but the opportunity to grow and develop your people.
So, here’s an excerpt from Sabina about how to delegate according to skill and experience:
DO. If your employee lacks experience with the organization or task and hasn’t developed the skills required for the job, she is likely what the Hierarchy of Competence calls “unconsciously incompetent.” In this instance, show her how it’s done: You do the work the first time while your employee shadows you to learn for next time.
TELL.  If your employee recognizes that she does not know how to execute a task to get a favorable outcome, she may be “consciously incompetent.” You can speed her progress toward mastery by encouraging self-reflection. This can help her synthesize learnings in a way that’s meaningful to her.
TEACH.  If your employee knows some of the steps needed for a given task but struggles with others (placing her between consciously incompetent and the next stage, “consciously competent”), emphasize why. Show her how to perform a task by clearly explaining why you’re doing things a certain way. Calling out the individual steps reveals the underlying structure of how you approach a task.
ASK.  If your employee knows how to execute a task but has to follow a recipe rather than doing it automatically, she is consciously competent. To further increase her grasp of the topic, ask her what she has learned. A few specific questions, such as, “What is a key insight from this process that can you carry forward?” may allow her to realize she knows more than she thought.
Try it on. Practice. And if you want an on-demand learning opportunity to learn the fundamentals of both negotiation and coaching, check out my courses on Linkedin Learning and