By Frank Viscuso
Effective delegation will enable you to accomplish far more than you could by taking 100 percent responsibility for every project or by chronic micromanagement (a terrible mistake). Delegation, along with setting priorities and avoiding time-wasting activities, is among the most important aspects of time management. When I was a tour commander, it would have been impossible for me to arrive on the scene of a four-car accident with entrapments and multiple injuries, manage the scene, secure the area, and extricate and treat the victims by myself. It would be ridiculous for any individual to even consider taking on all those roles. So, when it comes to administrative tasks, why do so many leaders try to do just that? I’ve known many individuals in various professions who have tried to do it all themselves, only to have their personal performance and physical health deteriorate from the stress and unnecessary burden they invited into their lives.
Effective delegation is an absolute necessity when it comes to an organization’s success. Subsequently, failure to delegate will ultimately result in failing to adequately develop your team. In the end, everyone will suffer. Knowing how to delegate (and to whom to delegate) will not only make your overall job easier but will also show the rest of your team members that you are a strong leader who has confidence in each of them and their abilities, the by-products of which are greater efficiency and increased morale.
When leaders delegate responsibilities, they should give their team members the authority to take whatever actions are necessary to complete the task and achieve the desired result. This is as true in corporate America as it is in public service. Once you assign a task, don’t look over your subordinates’ shoulders and question why they are doing it “that way” rather than “this way.” Instead, make it a priority to arrange things so the task can be completed without interruptions from you or anyone else who may impede progress.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that delegation is simply “passing responsibility.” As sure as there are rewards for proper delegation, there are absolute consequences for poor delegation. For supervisors to delegate effectively, they should first feel secure about their own positions and understand the talents, skills, and abilities of those around them.
Any time I, as an incident commander, arrived at a structure fire followed by four apparatus carrying a dozen or so firefighters, the firefighters on arrival first reported to the command post and asked, “What do you need, Chief?” Immediately, I delegated assignments, and off they went. One team would inevitably be assigned to search the building’s fire floor, another to advance a hoseline into the structure to confine the fire, and another to perform ventilation. If these teams’ leaders were well-trained, I did not have to tell them how to do their assigned tasks; they already knew. They should: Firefighters train every day for that reason.
When as a team leader you give out an assignment, you want to know with 100-percent confidence that it will be completed within an acceptable time frame. That assurance comes when you fully understand the talents, strengths, skills, and abilities of each of your team members. Having competent, educated people around you takes the weight of the world off your shoulders.
An effective incident commander should delegate assignments on the fireground in the same way he delegates tasks at work every day. For example, when tackling administrative projects, such as developing a community-awareness fire prevention program, a smart officer will gather facts and accomplish specific tasks by effectively delegating them to the appropriate people. Delegation should happen in the planning, in the research, in the development, in the implementation, and in the evaluation stages of all projects, especially larger ones that necessitate more people. Every job is easier when you delegate properly.
Bad habits can be the biggest hurdles people have to overcome in delegation. Since they are used to doing everything themselves, they don’t know where to begin. If you fall into that category, following are some tips to help you delegate effectively.
1. Establish and maintain an environment favorable to delegating.
This begins by creating team spirit. As the team leader, you should clearly understand the task you are delegating. If it is not clearly defined in your mind, you will not be able to communicate it to others. Consider your expected result, the resources available, and the timeline in which you need the task to be accomplished. When delegating assignments, be prepared to define the task’s scope, the desired results, the available resources, the task’s sensitivity, the communication guidelines, the deadlines, and your confidence in the person you select. When you delegate, you are not relinquishing responsibility. As the leader, you are still in control of the overall project.
2. Select the right person for the job.
When I became a tour commander, I went around to each station, stood in front of the firefighters who worked there, and asked each to share a little about themselves—specifically, what skills they had that could assist us on the fire scene or around the firehouse. We all learned things about each other that day. Some firefighters were licensed electricians or contractors, some spoke multiple languages, and others had computer skills. Having this knowledge made it easy to call on the right person for the right job. When delegating, ensure that the person accepting the assignment understands that accomplishing the task will benefit the entire team, not just himself. Team leaders should be acutely aware of their staff’s strengths and limitations and delegate accordingly. Ideally, the person chosen for a task should have the talent, skills, ability, knowledge, enthusiasm, and time needed to get the job done.
3. Ensure the person accepting the assignment understands the assignment.
When giving the assignment, encourage the delegate to ask questions to eliminate any confusion, and express how much authority you are handing over. You may provide guidance by saying, “Look into the problem, suggest a few possible solutions, and together we’ll choose the best one.” Or, if you have enough confidence in that individual, “Solve the problem and tell me when you’re finished.” The one to whom you delegate should have a clear picture of what you want and be aware that accepting the assignment is taking a step forward in his progress as a competent and valuable team member.
4. Keep an open-door policy.
Always keep the lines of communication open. Be available to provide assistance if and when needed. Let the delegate know that he should make first contact, but also tell that person to inform you only when things are not going according to plan. If the task or project will take several days, weeks, or even months to accomplish, schedule follow-up meetings to evaluate progress to ensure the project is moving forward. Such meetings need not be longer than a few minutes. Your main focus is to find out what has been accomplished, what needs to be accomplished, and if any problems have been encountered.
5. Be prepared to accept and deal with the consequences if that person does not meet your department’s expectations.
It is important that your teammates know you have their backs when things unexpectedly go wrong; however, this does not mean that you have to accept less than their best effort. It simply means that when they make honest mistakes, you will approach the situation with a level head and consider that you assigned this task because you felt the individual was competent. An unsatisfactory outcome could result from factors that were out of the delegate’s control. Since you delegated the assignment to a team member in which you had confidence, that individual will absolutely deserve the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go as planned. Don’t forget that you assigned the task, not the responsibility, for the overall outcome.
6. Always reward performance.
Reward and recognition are vitally important when it comes to expressing appreciation. As I worked my way through the ranks, I experienced and observed the reality that the people who work the hardest are often those who feel the most appreciated. As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to show appreciation of a job well done by recognizing quality work privately and publicly. Sincere recognition will increase your effectiveness as a leader and keep team morale high. Don’t reward a hard worker by giving him more work than you give to others. Although that is a sign of respect for a competent individual, it is also poor management to put so much work on one person’s shoulders that you fail to help develop the skills of others on the team. Consciously work to empower others so that they help you develop and execute your ideas, and you will become significantly more efficient than you could ever be by yourself.
Delegating is not an excuse to avoid work or unload difficult or tedious tasks on others. Effective delegation is an absolute necessity for a team’s success. When you divide tasks, you multiply your chances of success. Failure to delegate will result in a failure to adequately develop your team. Through delegation, your team will grow in confidence, and the team and the organization will benefit in the long run.
Frank Viscuso was a deputy chief for the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is an international speaker and the author of Step Up and Lead (Fire Engineering, 2013) and Step Up Your Teamwork (Fire Engineering, 2015).