Delegation: Let People Make Mistakes

We continue our discussion on delegation with understanding the first hurdle to delegation.

One of the first steps to delegation is to let people try to do the tasks you were doing.  It does not help to look over their shoulders every time.  Most of you have already been through this phase.

The next step is to allow for the fact that people will make mistakes and correct it every time.  Sometimes, your juniors just don’t seem to “get it”.  I have seen this cause anxiety, anger and therefore a lot of misery.  This is especially the case for perfectionists.

Here are some points to consider in such situations:

  1. Are they delivering on the outcomes. Then it may be ok to allow some mistakes
  2. Are they making mistakes that really hurt the work? Prioritize the tasks involved in terms of impact.  Consider whether you can tolerate those mistakes
  3. Understand that every person is different.  Your junior may be better than you at different things.  Examine whether you are only looking at those aspects where you are good.

Here is an example from my experience at the NGO where I volunteer.  I was particularly keen that every proposal, letter or document that goes out must be perfect.  Correct English, well formatted and presented.  My argument was that it does matter.  “These are the things that create an impression about us with others.  And impressions do matter.”

I ended up more or less writing everything.  I would completely edit others’ work, much to their chagrin.

After a while, I got tired of this and was therefore forced to think of a solution.

I asked myself this question “Why is it not ok that there are few mistakes our outputs.  Does it matter always?  Why this obsession with correct English? Am I not presenting a face to the external world that is not really true?  As an organisation, we may not be great at English language.  But our folks can write extremely in Marathi and Hindi.  At my business, whenever we received English documents from say Japanese people, we are quite tolerant of their mistakes.  So why not with our own?”

So, here is how I reframed my thinking about it:

  1. Our work in HIV was our core.  We need to be the best there.  Communication in English need not be our strength.  Unless we are writing to funding agencies 🙂
  2. We can tolerate those mistakes in most cases.
  3. Our folks are better at other things than I.  Let me not get in the way. Let me not stifle their creativity.

This line of thinking helped me deal with my irritation and anxiety.  Everybody was happier!

Most perfectionists do not understand that they have a problem.   Find out if you are one.  Examine yourself closely.  Ask others for feedback.  Take corrective action by reframing your assumptions.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ramesh Krishnan on August 30, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Hey Bushy,
    Agree on the ‘art’ of delegation and the important pieces to keep in mind while getting your team to get to do the tasks that you want them to start doing. I dont agree with your view point that it would help bring down your quality parameters just because your team could not reach there or are not looking equipped to do that. You have mixed up 2 messages here, I think. One is why and how should one delegate and the other is to reconcile and be happy.


    • Thanks for your comment RK.

      I did not mean that the quality standards should be lowered. However, we need to understand what “quality” stands for. Are we getting the results? Or are we stuck on doing it in a certain way.

      Every task will have some core aspects and other that are not necessarily germane to the work. I am asking you to consider that as long as the important things are delivered well, why quibble about the smaller things? Is that a compromise on quality?


  2. The problem with ‘perfectionism’ is that it focuses so much on the task that the person doing the task is forgotten. If the growth of the individual is as much part of the task at hand then one need not compromise on quality. One needs to inspire the individual to work towards getting better, and experience the joy of doing things well. I agree with Bhushan that this may not be first priority but it also cannot be knocked off the list of expectations entirely. Successful delegation recognises the strengths of each individual but also helps them understand and overcome their weaknesses. In this way, the work gets better and the individual grows too. Everyone may not want to ‘grow’ however….


  3. Posted by Ajay Kapoor on September 1, 2011 at 10:07 am

    The concept of delegation is brilliantly described by Bhushan. However, in my view, letting certain mistakes go past is one side of the story. We , most of the times, get bogged down by the sense of how will others look at this and what will they think about me and my organisation. So, precisely, it is a cost benefit abalysis that we need to do before we comploetely delegate and not bother too much about perfection. Perfection at what cost? Who is perfect any way?


  4. Posted by Dr D B Raju on September 5, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Dear Bhushan,
    Delegation is a trial and error process. The art of delegation consists of allowing the delegatee to make mistakes and over a period of time he learns how to do it. The process varies from person to person depending on his capabilities and also the context.
    Dr D B Raju


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