Leadership Pro Tip: Why Delegation Isn’t Professional Development

Simply giving potential leaders more tasks to manage may be meant as on-the-job training—but it actually functions more like out-of-scope work, according to a recent study. That can invite problems.

Giving employees a task and telling them to do it might be seen as a great way to offer on-the-job experience.

But if that’s your approach to leadership development, it might be doing more harm than good, according to a recent study.

What’s the Strategy?

Simply put, leadership development needs some formalization, not just informal delegation.

Recent research featured in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that while many leaders preferred to develop leaders through task delegation, it often was viewed negatively by those who actually did the tasks.

“Informal leadership is both a critical stepping stone on many employees’ professional growth paths and a key ingredient of effective teams,” study authors Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu, Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Ashlea Bartram, Jing Wang, and Paul Tesluk wrote in a piece for Harvard Business Review. “But it can also come at a cost—and organizations that ignore the toll informal leadership can take on employees’ energy levels and job satisfaction do so at their own peril.”

Why Is It Effective?

Building a distinct structure around leadership training efforts, while requiring more front-end work by the current leader, often leads to better results overall.

Additionally, there’s another angle to this worth considering, according to Inc. contributor Jeff Steen: Mere delegation could damage your team’s morale.

“Many businesses encourage employees to stretch themselves beyond their job description to show they’re ready for a promotion, and yet there’s no formal process in place for determining what that additional work should be or how it figures into considerations for promotion,” Steen wrote. “My point is this: Giving your employees extra work and calling it professional development without thought, structure, or planning is more than just a cop out—it’s borderline abusive, and might push your best talent to leave.”

What’s the Potential?

The study’s authors suggest that if you do lean on an informal pipeline to test the skills of potential leaders, the best way to do so is to make that pipeline deep, with many potential leaders, rather than putting the pressure on one employee. This has the dual effect of balancing workloads while helping you understand the skills of multiple employees.

“Building an informal leadership pipeline not only reduces the burden on any one informal leader, but also ensures that the team will continue to be successful if informal leaders are promoted into other roles or decide to take a step back from their new responsibilities,” the authors wrote in Harvard Business Review.

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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