Research gives insight into why delegation occurs

Studies show desire to avoid feeling responsible for others’ outcomes led to delegation

In seven experiments, we found that participants tasked with choosing meals, hotels, investments or tasks to complete were two to three times as likely to delegate the decision if the choice affected others and if the options were unappealing.

In seven experiments, we found that participants tasked with choosing meals, hotels, investments or tasks to complete were two to three times as likely to delegate the decision if the choice affected others and if the options were unappealing.

 

People can be reluctant to give up control. Managers often hesitate to delegate tasks and decision-making to others, even when they would benefit from doing so.

Yet anyone who has worked in a large organisation will tell you that, just as often, decisions can get passed from person to person, making it difficult for everyone to get work done. So how do we encourage delegating when it’s beneficial and reduce it when it’s not?

To answer this, we first have to understand why people delegate choices and when they’re more likely to do it. Our research shows that although people fiercely defend their ability to make decisions, they also can eagerly hand off decisions that will affect others – especially when the choice is between unattractive outcomes.

In seven experiments, we found that participants tasked with choosing meals, hotels, investments or tasks to complete were two to three times as likely to delegate the decision if the choice affected others and if the options were unappealing.

Essentially, we found that a desire to avoid feeling responsible for others’ outcomes led people to delegate. People expected to feel worse about decisions that would have negative consequences for others than decisions that would inflict those same consequences on to themselves.

And these concerns were compounded by the fear of being blamed or making a bad decision. Delegation, then, became appealing because it allowed people to pass the burden on to someone else.

Of course, people wouldn’t hand off a decision to just anybody. Participants only delegated when the other person was of equal or higher status and would be held officially responsible for the outcome of the decision.

They avoided delegating to subordinates because they believed they would still bear responsibility and blame if the choice turned out poorly.

Our findings illuminate how leaders can delegate more when it’s useful and less when it’s not.

There are times when leaders should make the call – for instance, when they are able to decide more quickly and more knowledgeably than others. Reassuring them that they will not be blamed for the outcome can reduce the tendency to pass the buck.

Alternatively, there are times when an unwillingness to delegate can be inefficient and stressful for managers and other employees.

If managers are reluctant to delegate due to fear that they will be blamed for their employees’ actions, our research suggests that alleviating this pressure can be beneficial for them and their teams.

No matter the context, leaders should try to appreciate what people want to choose, how they wish to make a choice and whether they want to take responsibility for doing so.

Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016

Mary Steffel is an assistant professor of marketing at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University. Elanor Williams is an assistant professor of marketing at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. Jaclyn Perrmann-Graham is a doctoral candidate in management at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati.

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