Last month we talked about why delegation is a difficult but necessary thing for leaders to do. This month, we’ll address another perspective on delegation that further complicates the concept: Identifying the right level of initiative an employee should take in their assignments.
Let’s use a real-world example from a recent coaching client. Mary had been working for XYZ Consulting Firm for three years, reporting to Nick. If a client called her asking for help or suggestions, her response was, “I’ll get back to you,” and then Nick would tell her what to say. “After all,” he would say, “you’ve only been here three years.”
For three years, Mary had been reporting to Nick as part of the firm XYZ Consultants. If a client called her asking for help or suggestions, she’d nearly always ask Nick about the proper course of action. When a shift in the company’s organization structure had her reporting to Dave, she employed the same strategy.
But Dave was not Nick.
“Why do you keep asking me what to tell clients?” he asked her after a few months. “At your level, I expect you to take some initiative. If I’m making all the decisions, I’m not sure I need you.”
However, Mary and Dave resolved the issue quickly and enjoyed a stellar working relationship whereupon both employees were eventually promoted.
This is a story we’ve heard many hundreds of times. Because “taking initiative” means a variety of things depending on the organization or —in Mary’s case— even person-to-person within the same team, challenges can arise and proper communication is necessary to find workable solutions.
From a manager’s perspective: what level of initiative do you expect from your employees? As your career ascends to the C-Suite level, remember to have direct and honest conversations with your employees about the appropriate level of independence they have in their roles.
Be as specific in delegating responsibility as possible, because it is not as obvious as you’d think. One construction client of ours values “self-empowered team members,” but when we asked the partners how much discretionary spending their project managers have available to them, they told us $10,000. That’s not much empowerment when the typical project costs $4 million. At the same time, the level of initiative you expect from your teams will change with time and experience. If your employees make too many mistakes, you may want to increase oversight, at least temporarily.
From the subordinate’s perspective: Do you know when to step up? Responsibility does not stop with your manager. To truly learn and grow, you’ll sometimes need to act unilaterally. To do this effectively, you’ll need to clearly understand where your boundaries are and, when necessarily, overstep them.
Of course, these concepts are somewhat contradictory. If employees are empowered to take initiative, they will inevitably make errors in judgment and will not be able to use their manager’s orders as a scapegoat. This is not a bad thing. “Taking initiative” does not mean acting without consequence, but rather having the freedom to take greater risks and assume responsibility for them.