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Over the past few years, changing where we work has made us question how we work.

So much has changed for many teams. Whilst virtual teamwork under pressure has presented its fair share of challenges, there have also been opportunities to instigate new strategies and adopt more flexible approaches to working. Many of us have drawn on and cultivated skills we didn’t know we possessed. While we’re addressing the need for change, it’s time to look again at how we approach delegation.

Traditionally, delegation has gone down hierarchical lines.

Managers delegate to their teams, not the other way around. We often think – albeit implicitly – in terms of the 'right to delegate': the implications being that delegation is associated with status and is inflicting something negative on the person to whom work is delegated. Colleagues might ask one another for favours to get work done, but more often than not, this is couched in far less formal terms.

But what if we changed the way we look at delegation?

Considered delegation is needed for a team to function effectively. This means thinking outside job descriptions and acknowledging individual differences in behaviour. In Belbin terms, each of has particular Team Role strengths and weaknesses (the flipsides of those strengths). We have preferred roles (those we play readily, even naturally), manageable roles (those we can draw on when needed and cultivate if desirable), and least preferred roles (those which are best avoided).

For the team to succeed, its members should be aiming to spend as much time as possible working to their preferred roles, since this increases engagement sixfold and boosts both individual and team performance. Work will not always end up on the right desk straight off the bat, so this means delegating where others would not only do a better job, but might even enjoy it.

Delegating a 'class' of work

In his book, Team Roles at Work, Dr Meredith Belbin has the following to say:

Delegation does not refer here merely to an off-loading in the volume of work and the responsibility attached to it, but to the choosing of what to delegate and what to keep. You should not delegate those things that you are good at doing. You delegate in a field where your strength is lacking.

By delegating work associated with certain Team Roles, you can essentially give responsibility over those Team Roles to others. The delegation is one of assigning responsibility for a class of work for which a particular Team Role is central. This still enables a face-to-face and interactive relationship to be retained with the person who now takes on that responsibility.

Far from cherry-picking scraps here and there, delegation in Team Role terms is concerned with defining a 'class of work' and identifying the right person to take it on. Accountability remains with the delegator through the working relationship that is established.

Of course, the only way to identify the best person for each kind of work in these terms is for everyone to understand – and be able to articulate – their own behavioural strengths, and the strengths of those around them, by completing a Belbin questionnaire and receiving the Belbin Individual Report and Belbin Team Report respectively.

These Reports help facilitate discussions as to who might be best suited to which kinds of work, and how the workload will be fairly managed within the team. Armed with this knowledge, each team member has a ready network of resources upon which to draw.

Moving to strengths-based delegation

What happens if you’re new? Junior? What if you know your Belbin strengths but others don’t? How do you go about introducing strengths-based delegation? In the first instance, it’s important to be conscious of your language. Demonstrate that you’re still accountable, but that you’re seeking help with a particular aspect of the work, and that you believe that the other person’s approach could hold the key.

If the work calls on your manageable roles, demonstrate that you’re keen to learn new skills, but need a little guidance. If it’s amongst your least preferred roles, ask if there is anything else you can take on in return. In the case of those new to work, there’s a balance to be struck between honing key strengths and being receptive to trying new things.

Beware Co-ordinators and Completer Finishers

There are two Team Roles in particular for whom delegation might prove a thorny issue. Co-ordinators are adept at talent-spotting and influencing others: in short, they’re good at getting others to do their bidding. But this can go too far.

If Co-ordinators over-delegate, others in the team are likely to think them lazy and become resentful. Strong Co-ordinators question why they’re delegating. If it’s truly for the benefit of the team, the fit between person and job should be easy to justify, both to themselves and to others. If it’s for personal or office-political reasons, this is manipulative behaviour and should be called out.

Completer Finishers have the opposite problem – they’re often unwilling to delegate because they believe that others won’t share their meticulous attention to detail or commitment to the quality of the end product. As such, they often take on unmanageable workloads and may even seek out (or agree to) work which doesn’t fit their behavioural approach. In virtual teams, this problem can be magnified if workloads are not closely monitored.

Again, Team Role understanding is key. If others in the team are aware of this behavioural attribute, they are better informed, and may ask themselves whether they want to delegate because the work requires a Completer Finisher, or because they know the Completer Finisher will take on the work.

In particular, managers should take care that Completer Finishers are not involved at the early stage of a project (where their contribution is unlikely to be positive) and should manage deadlines carefully, checking in regularly to ensure that steady progress is being made.

A fair exchange

When considered in terms of strengths, delegation ceases to be about hierarchy and 'dumping' hefty workloads on others, and becomes a question of how to make all the puzzle pieces fit together. Ideally, each person in the team should end up with more of the type of work that engages them, and should feel more confident in seeking help from others when required.

To help your team delegate more effectively, check out our full suite of Belbin Reports. Belbin is a down-to-earth tool that can get teams working more effectively. To find out more about the numerous applications of Belbin (including feeding back Reports and using Belbin to enhance team performance), why not attend one of our practical days or just call us!

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