Your guide to delegative leadership

Your guide to delegative leadership

| February 1, 2023 | Blog | 7 minute read

The most effective leaders are the ones who know when to delegate responsibilities to direct reports who can manage projects effectively. In fact, the delegative leadership style is predicated on the idea that individual department heads, team leaders, and staff members are better off managing their day-to-day business without excessive interference from the top.

What is delegative leadership?

Delegative leadership is a management style in which leaders take a hands-off approach to the day-to-day oversight of their direct reports, giving them the freedom to complete daily tasks as they see fit while maintaining open communication and support when necessary.

When embracing the delegative leadership style, the manager has to sense when it's most appropriate to delegate and when they need to be more involved.

When to delegate:

When not to delegate:

  • Employees are struggling without more direct, day-to-day involvement from their managers.
  • Projects require cross-departmental collaboration with leader involvement to be completed effectively.

Delegative leadership is not about leaders pushing the assignments they don't want to do onto their employees. It's a powerful management style that cultivates the unique talents and continued growth of each individual team member for maximum organizational advantage.

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Core characteristics of the delegative leader

Numerous skills and competencies contribute to the success of the delegative leader. Here are three of the most important:

  • Availability: There is a common misconception that delegative leaders hole themselves up in their offices and refuse to get involved in the day-to-day management of individual departments. That isn't true.

    While delegative leaders prefer to let employees handle their own responsibilities in their own way, they make themselves open and available to ensure direct reports have the support they need to continue learning and doing the best job possible.

  • Awareness: Leaders that adopt the delegative style have to be able to balance the hands-off approach that characterizes delegative leadership with a more direct form of involvement when situations require it.

    They must build an understanding of their direct reports' management and working styles so they know how best to strike that balance and what degree of support employees need to perform at their best.

  • Empathy: Understanding subordinates at the level required to serve them best requires empathy and emotional intelligence. Leaders need to maintain direct lines of communication with employees, taking the time to learn about their goals, challenges and personalities.

    They also need to know how to sympathize with their teams' unique circumstances. Exercising those empathy muscles will give leaders the insights they need to put their team members in the best position to succeed.

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Advantages of delegative leadership

The manager who delegates responsibility effectively can deliver numerous advantages to both the leadership team and the organization at large. These include:

Employees are more satisfied in their roles

Delegative leaders give their direct reports a substantial degree of autonomy. Without constant oversight from above — coupled with a high degree of trust from their supervisors — employees are free to complete job tasks without worrying about micromanagement. This leads to higher employee engagement and better production outcomes.

Managers don't burn their employees out

It is well known that people don't like working for micromanagers. They don't want their work constantly nitpicked or critiqued, and they crave managers who trust them to do their jobs without constant interference. Micromanagers can wear thin on employees, and that can lead to burnout.

Delegative leaders are best positioned to relieve that pressure, keeping employee satisfaction high and preventing their direct reports from getting burnt out on the job.

Leaders can focus on big-picture priorities

The delegating leadership style works best when employees are good self-managers and can be trusted to effectively lead their teams and departments. When that happens, delegative leaders can focus on bigger, strategic items that impact the entire business.

Having the bandwidth to focus the bulk of their creative and administrative resources on those top priorities puts the business in a better position to grow and succeed.

It creates a stronger sense of team cohesion

Leaders who trust their direct reports earn the trust of those same direct reports in turn. When organizational culture is defined by a strong degree of trust, there tends to also be a better sense of cohesion, collaboration and camaraderie. This makes teams and companies at large better able to align around shared objectives and deliver high-quality outcomes.

Employees have more opportunities for skills development

One of the great advantages of this style of leadership is that it gives middle managers and staff members at an earlier career stage a wealth of opportunities to cultivate their own leadership skills. When direct reports don't have a leader to take routine problems to, they're encouraged to find their own solutions.

This can help employees grow into more seasoned professionals who are better able to face new challenges head-on and innovate to overcome problems.

It creates a culture of innovation

The opportunity to tackle problems with new ideas has a direct impact on building a spirit of innovation at all levels of the organization. Without constant oversight from managers — which often means forcing staff inside restrictive, standardized processes — team leads have the freedom to innovate to solve problems.

While that can lead to the creation of more efficient day-to-day processes, it also extends to the development of products and services that better match customer expectations.

Disadvantages of delegative leadership

If it's overdone, the delegative leadership style runs the risk of creating poor performance and productivity outcomes for employees across the organization.

Problems might fly under the radar

Delegative leadership works best when leaders have highly competent and capable direct reports who can skillfully manage the day-to-day responsibilities of their teams.

However, if employees don't have the skills to lead their teams without more regular oversight, it can cause problems to arise (and worse, go unaddressed). This can create confusion across the team and lead to serious performance problems for the organization as a whole.

It can lower productivity

Employees have to know how to manage their own workloads and deliver quality work for the delegative leadership style to work. If employees are less independent and need more involved managers to get things done, it might encourage employees to slack off, causing productivity to dip.

Further down the org chart, if group members sense their leaders are taking advantage of this lack of oversight and not pulling their weight, it can cause resentment to form, leading to even greater problems for the wider team.

There could be a lack of accountability

When extreme independence is the norm, each person is deemed responsible for their own work. Leaders that fully embrace the delegative style might be less willing — and able — to hold themselves (or others) accountable for their actions.

Without leadership accountability, mistakes can lead to a culture of finger-pointing and dishonesty, damaging trust and creating long-lasting institutional problems for the organization.

It may be harder for cross-departmental teams to collaborate

Organizations with delegative leaders at the helm are usually characterized by a high degree of autonomy and independence. That means there are fewer opportunities to engage with other teams and departments, which can be detrimental when projects require a full-scale collaborative effort.

This lack of collaboration can also hurt employee satisfaction. Many people want the chance to work closely with colleagues on other teams. According to data from Zippia, three-quarters of people say teamwork and collaboration are "very important" parts of their jobs. Without that, they might feel like their work is siloed and devoid of meaningful social connection.

Hands-on professional development for new team members

The delegative leadership style might not be best suited for new group members. Delegative leaders have a tendency to throw new hires into the deep end, which could cause them to make mistakes, get frustrated with their work and miss out on opportunities to learn from their leaders.

Enhancing delegative leadership skills with The Bailey Group

Oftentimes in our coaching engagements, we'll work with leaders who struggle with the how and when of delegating to their direct reports. It's in these cases that we'll introduce the delegative leadership style to help them build a healthier relationship between their work and their employees.

Newly promoted leaders often find it difficult to move fully into their new roles, excessively keeping their hands in the daily work of their old departments. Practicing some of the core principles of the delegative leadership style can help these managers commit themselves to bigger, more strategic priorities while trusting new leaders to handle their own responsibilities.

We've found that this is usually an exercise for leaders to move beyond the comfort zone. Leaders sometimes need to build their confidence in their own abilities to take on higher, organizational-level priorities with maximum effectiveness. We work with our clients throughout this process to ensure they are equipped to handle the challenges they face in their new role humbly and confidently.

Ready to take your leadership skills to the next level? Reach out to our team today to schedule a free consultation.