Future of Work

Delegation dilemma: Are you passing the baton or passing the buck?

A businessman walks on the esplanade of La Defense, in the financial and business district in La Defense, west of Paris, April 10, 2014.   REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (FRANCE - Tags: BUSINESS)

It comes down to blame and responsibility Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Emma Luxton
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Most leaders pride themselves on their ability to make decisions, but when they affect other people, many start to feel uncomfortable. The temptation to delegate can be overwhelming.

Research, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, looks into why people delegate and when they are more likely to do it.

“Although people fiercely defend their ability to make decisions,” the researchers note, “they eagerly hand off those that will affect others, especially when the choice is between unattractive outcomes.”

The researchers found people felt worse about making decisions that would have negative outcomes for others than decisions that would have the same consequences for themselves.

So why do leaders duck decision-making responsibility?

Blame and responsibility

It comes down to blame and responsibility, the researchers note in an article for Harvard Business Review. When faced with making a decision, leaders worry that if things go wrong they will be blamed. To avoid the risk, they pass the task to someone else.

But that's not the only reason leaders delegate. When the identity of the decision maker was obscured, leaders were still more likely to pass on the tasks to others. Feeling responsible for the outcome, even if others didn’t know who made the decision, left many feeling uncomfortable.

When to delegate

The researchers noted that when leaders “are able to decide more quickly and more knowledgeably than others” it’s important that they take responsibility and make the decision. They also say “an unwillingness to delegate can be inefficient and stressful for managers and employees”.

Who to delegate to is another important decision. Tasks can be delegated upwards or downwards. The researchers found a common pattern.

“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, regardless of who would be held officially responsible, because they believed they would still bear responsibility and blame if the choice turned out poorly.”

Big decisions

Facing a tough decision that negatively affects others is undoubtedly one of the big challenges for people in leadership roles. The research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that for leaders, opting to take that decision themselves may be the best decision of all.

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