An Introduction to the Delegating Leadership Style

Illustration of men and women in business attire, two sitting and two standing, receiving delegated responsibilities from a fifth person in leadership.

Employees are individuals, with individual strengths and weaknesses. While it’s tempting for a manager to choose one style of leadership and stick to it, doing so runs the risk of alienating certain employees or not making use of their strengths in the best way.

Behavioral scientist Paul Hersey and management expert Ken Blanchard developed the Situational Leadership Model to answer the question, “Which style of leadership is the best?” Their model asserts that managers should adapt their leadership style to make the best use of the strengths of their employees.

Hersey and Blanchard define two different kinds of behavior exhibited by managers: task behavior and relationship behavior. Task behavior focuses on one-way communication, where the manager directs the employee to engage in specific tasks. Relationship behavior, on the other hand, is two-way communication and provides employees with support that allows them to complete their work autonomously.

The Situational Leadership Model further defines four different leadership styles, each of which emphasizes task behavior and relationship behavior to different extents.

  • The directing leadership style focuses on telling the employee explicitly what to do.
  • Coaching management combines task behavior and relationship behavior to provide clear direction but allow for some autonomy.
  • A supporting style uses very little direct task behavior, but provides a high degree of support to the employee.
  • The delegating leadership style allows for the most autonomy for employees.

What Is Delegating Leadership Style?

Managers using the delegating leadership style share authority and responsibility with their employees. Employees are given the ability to complete projects and tasks on their own. This doesn’t mean leaders give no direction; the act of delegating requires a manager to have a conversation with an employee to assign a task, ensure the employee understands the task and give the employee the tools necessary to complete it.

Delegation has a number of advantages. Employee satisfaction tends to be higher when employees feel they have agency and authority within an organization, and people with a high degree of self-motivation can thrive under a delegating leadership style. It also has the advantage of helping employees learn valuable skills that they can use to grow into leadership positions, and it can give them a better understanding of the workings of the company.

Delegation is a hands-off leadership style in comparison to others, but employees still require attention. Managers must delegate correctly to be effective, and ineffective delegation can lead to tasks being assigned to individuals who have neither the skills nor the authority necessary to complete them. Delegation also runs the risk of undermining group cohesion within the organization. Finally, it’s not the right style for every employee. Some employees need a high degree of supervision and may not work effectively under a delegation leadership style.

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Delegating Leadership Style in Action

Delegation involves more than simply assigning tasks to people, redistributing workload and letting employees complete their work on their own. There are several key components to delegating.

Be Aware of Employee Skills

When delegating responsibilities, ensure you’re delegating to the right people. Some employees may require more attention and direction than others, while some may be eager for autonomy but lack experience. It may seem to make sense to assign a task to the employee most skilled at completing it, but assigning tasks that push employees outside of their comfort zone can be more effective long term because it builds their skills and confidence.

Communicate What Success Looks Like

Explain the task as thoroughly as you can. Having employees explain their understanding of the task can ensure that they know what’s expected of them. Make sure employees know what they need to do for the task to be considered a success, including deadlines and resources. Answer any questions employees might have, and schedule a time to touch base with them after the task is underway.

Keep Communication Going

Communication remains vital with a delegating leadership style. Ensure your employees know they can come to you with questions, and make sure you answer their questions effectively. Sometimes the best answer to a question involves teaching employees where to find the information themselves, so don’t be afraid to put a little extra time into answering a question; it may mean less time answering questions in the future. In addition, get regular updates from your employees on the tasks you’ve delegated to them. It’s important to know how successful they are throughout the process, not just at the end. Provide feedback as appropriate, to help correct any issues that may crop up.

Celebrate Victories

Delegation requires a significant degree of trust, both on your part and on the part of your employees. In addition, having tasks delegated to them may push employees into uncomfortable territory at first. When your employees succeed, it’s important to celebrate their victories. Make sure they know they did a good job and how their efforts affect the company at large. Celebrating your employees’ successes helps reinforce the behaviors you want to see them exhibit.

Other Leadership Styles

The Situational Leadership Model provides managers with other choices of leadership styles that they may find more useful in certain situations or with certain employees.

Directing Leadership Style

A directing leadership style incorporates a high degree of focus on tasks and a low degree of focus on the employee/manager relationship. In this leadership style, managers dictate to employees what they must do and expect them to accomplish their tasks, leaving little room for autonomy.

A directing leadership style can be useful for newer, more tentative employees or those who are afraid of having authority or autonomy. It also leaves less room for error in the interpretation of directives, making tasks clear and unambiguous. However, overuse of a directing leadership style can cause employees to grow resentful or unmotivated and to feel replaceable or unappreciated.

Coaching Leadership Style

Employees who react poorly to a directing leadership style may react well to a coaching leadership style. In this style, the manager “sells” employees on effective ways to complete tasks, rather than telling them how to complete them. Managers provide guidance and encouragement, explaining the reasoning behind methods.

An employee with a high degree of confidence but a low degree of skill or experience can benefit from this leadership style. Coaching has the advantage of emphasizing the relationship between employee and employer, which can have long-term advantages. However, coaching can be a very time-intensive leadership style.

Supporting Leadership Style

In a supporting leadership style, a manager focuses more on explaining why things must be done rather than explaining what must be done. This leadership style emphasizes relationship behavior over task behavior and focuses on building employee motivation rather than skill.

This leadership style can be useful for employees who know how to complete the tasks at hand but do not have the motivation to complete them or do them well. Supporting leadership addresses this with listening, praise and making sure employees feel valued within the organization.

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