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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Handing off the Baton: Assertive Delegation

In track and field, a good relay race involves the tight cooperation of four runners.  Each runner goes part of the distance and hands the baton off to the next runner.  If the baton exchange is a clean one, the chances for winning the race are much better than if the baton is dropped or the exchange is not handled well.

In a clean handoff, the second runner begins to run as the first runner enters the exchange zone.  For a perfect exchange, the runners’ hands are precisely parallel and the baton is transferred smoothly.  If the runners have to fumble to find each other’s hands; if they are not in step with each other; if they don’t run a precise distance together during the handoff, the race is over for the team.

For the baton exchange to happen well, the runners have to give up their ego needs in the service of the needs of the team.  Each runner’s best strength determines where he/she runs in the relay.  For example, the best starter runs the first leg of the race.  This person must be counted on not to have a false start and must be able to do the baton exchange almost perfectly.  The second and third runners must run strong and fast.  They must each be good both at passing the baton and at receiving it.  The last runner, the anchor, must keep a level head and must be able to handle the pressure well.  He/she cannot start running too soon, even if the team is behind and there is ground to make up.

In establishing a good baton exchange for the team, the coach must consider trust, strength, dependability, timing, and accuracy.

Assertive delegation includes all the characteristics of a clean baton exchange.  Opportunities for  assertive delegation arise at home when dividing household tasks, in our personal lives when working on committees and in clubs or organizations, and in business while working with others.

First in order to delegate assertively, you must be prepared to trust the person to whom you handoff the task.  When delegation is difficult, the person handing off the task is often unwilling to let it go.

Many of us grew up with the adage: “If you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.”
However, if you hold onto the baton in the transfer, unwilling to let it go completely, the receiver is likely to stumble and won’t be able to complete his/her job effectively.  A good assertive statement in passing the baton will assure you that the task will happen as you wish and will increase your trust in the other person.

Be precise in your handoff

Think about exactly what you need at the end of the task to feel good about the task’s completion.  Make an assertive statement to clarify what the other person should accomplish.  To be effective, this statement must not only convey respect to the other person, but must also be very specific about expectations.

Here is an example of a poor handoff:
Hi, Nora.  Remember the vendor accounts?  Well, I need you to finish them up by Friday.”

Now here is an example of a clear assertive delegation:
Nora, I want you to complete the work on the vendor accounts.  To complete the assignment you will need to:
1) contact all the vendors;
2) give them instructions in writing;
3) make sure that all of them have paid you by Friday.”

On the home front a poor handoff is:
Billy, I’d like you to do the laundry this weekend.”  This is not clear enough and leaves much room for misinterpretation.

Assumptions are a big problem when delegation is not precise.  My definition of “do the laundry” may mean something completely different from Billy’s definition.  Billy, for example, may think that “do the laundry” means to put one basket of clothes into the washing machine and start it.

A clear assertive delegation is specific:
Billy, I want you to do the laundry this weekend.  This means that you wash all of the laundry in all of the baskets, dry all of the wet laundry in the dryer, fold all of the clothes and stack each person’s folded laundry on his/her bed.”

Run along beside the delegate for a moment
to complete the handoff well

As the first runner hands the baton off to the second, for a short period they are running together.  In handing off a task, you must determine how figuratively to run beside your delegate.  For example, first you give your instructions.  To run beside him/her for a moment, you say assertively, “OK, Nora, now what is your understanding of what I am asking you to do?

As you hear her answer, you can complete the handoff, knowing that she is clear about her leg of the race.  If she isn’t clear, then stay with her long enough for both of you to be satisfied that the task instructions are understood.

In our home example, you’ll need to hear Billy’s understanding of his instructions.  He may wish to write the instructions down or you may provide him with a written list.  When I taught my children to do laundry, I posted instructions in the laundry room for how to start the washing machine and how to run the dryer so that no child could say, “I forgot how....”

Building in dependability

As the race is run, each runner is watching the other three, mentally staying in pace as the race progresses.  Each runner depends on the ability of the other three to complete the relay.

In assertive delegation, we build in dependability in two ways.

1. We choose our delegate well.

Our history with the person to whom we delegate is a large factor in choosing him/her.  However, sometimes we delegate to challenge another person or to provide them with an opportunity to grow.  (This is likely to be what we are doing in trying to train Billy to do the laundry!)

2.  We build in an action to allow us to follow what our delegate is doing.

For example, in our instructions to Nora, we might say assertively, “Nora, I’d like you to email me every morning to let me know where you are on the project.  In doing this, I’ll have a daily progress report and I can cheer you on.”

For Billy, an assertive comment is: “Billy, I know doing the laundry will be hard, so I’ll check on you on Sunday and cheer if you are doing the job well.”  Another approach for Billy is:  “Billy, if you have any trouble doing the laundry, come and ask me for advice.  I’ll gladly give suggestions, but doing the laundry will still be your job.”

Timing is everything

In a relay race, timing is everything.  The second runner must be poised to start as the first runner approaches.  In fact, the second runner begins to run just as the first runner enters the exchange zone.

In our assertive delegation, we will more likely delegate to someone who can see us coming.  We will choose a person who can anticipate how we might need his/her help and who will already be on the move when we arrive.

Timing is also a key factor at the end of the race.  If the handoffs have gone well, the runners will be as efficient as possible as they approach the finish line.  No wasted time will slow the finish down.

In delegating a task assertively, we can point to timing in our initial instructions to our delegate.  For example, we might say to Nora, “Nora, our deadline for this project is next Friday.  I want the project in on time.  What do you think will help you get to the deadline?  What will be a roadblock on the way to the deadline?

With children like Billy, timing may have to include consequences.  For example, “Billy, I’ll expect the laundry to be finished by 5 PM on Sunday.  Because everyone needs their clean clothes on Monday morning, I’ll expect you to work until you’re finished, even if that means missing your favorite Sunday night show.”

Winning the medal at the end of the race

When a relay team wins the event, each team member gets a medal.  This rewards each individual for his or her contribution to the whole team’s accomplishment.

In delegation, we must think like the coach of the team.  If you delegate a task, plan a reward for the completion of the task.  If your employee finishes the project on or before deadline, reward him/her.  This reward can be simple: an extra half hour for lunch; getting to go home early one day; or a big sign on the team bulletin board: “NORA FINISHED THE VENDOR PROJECT!” 

And if Billy actually does the laundry, I’m sure you and he can create a list of rewards that he would love to receive!

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