Grainne Hallahan

Delegation difficulties?: How to manage your manager

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Teachers who feel like they lack autonomy are more likely to quit, so poor delegation is a big problem for schools. Grainne Hallahan asks the experts about two common delegation mistakes – how to recognise them as a leader, and what staff can do to get their manager to change their ways

school leadership and delegation

Put yourself in the shoes of a new senior leader who’s just been tasked with a new assignment. An email lands in your inbox titled “Transition project”. Your heart sinks. Not because you don’t have the time to do the work, or the enthusiasm for the project, but because you know every detail of that project is already going to be specified in the email.

Despite the fact that you have recently been promoted to SLT, you aren’t going to be able to use any of your own initiative or professional judgement.

This is not how delegation is supposed to work. But poor delegation, it seems, is rife in schools.

Earlier this year, the National Foundation of Educational Research (NFER) published a report saying that teachers had reported lower levels of autonomy compared with other professionals. What’s more, those who felt that they didn’t have autonomy were more likely to say that they wanted to leave teaching as a result.

No school leader wants to contribute to driving teachers out of the profession. But issues with delegation can happen at every level: those in senior leadership are just as likely to feel the sting of a lack of autonomy as newly qualified teachers.

So, what can leaders do to make sure that they aren’t pushing delegation problems onto the people they manage? Here are two key delegation dilemmas, and what to do about them.

Dilemma one: You’re expecting staff to read your mind

In trying to allow staff the space to find their own way, leaders can often set them up to fail by not being explicit enough about deadlines, and what the non-negotiables are. Lucy Flower made this mistake when she was head of department.

"As a new middle leader, I would delegate a piece of work, then anxiously hover around the colleague, sending passive-aggressive ‘polite reminder’ emails until I received the work back,” she explains. “When it was sent in, I promptly abandoned it. I would be bemoaning its lack of detail, ‘obvious’ points missed and pitiable presentation to anyone who would listen. I would then scramble to do the work myself, vowing never again to delegate important tasks.”

Why does it happen?

Flower realised that the problem was not with those she was delegating to but with her own approach to handing over the task in the first place.

"Later, I realised my errors,” she says. “I had not taken the time to sit down with the colleague and explain thoroughly what I wanted. I needed to give them all the pertinent points, the detail and the bigger picture that they were not aware of. Instead of snippy emails, I should have simply been more assertive with deadlines.”

More importantly, Flower came to realise that she had been setting a task that only a clairvoyant could complete.

"I saw that I had held the laughably unreasonable expectation that they would be able to read my mind, and felt frustrated when they didn’t,” she says.

What should you do if you have this problem with your boss?

Communication is at the root of this problem. Your manager is expecting you to know what they are thinking. And, in not speaking up, you are expecting the same of them.

Sonia Gill, a former teacher and author of Successful Difficult Conversations in School, says that the solution is to be proactive about getting productive dialogue going. This needs to be done tactfully.

"The key here is to be positive and help your manager help you,” she says. “If you start saying why you can’t do something, a wall will go up and useful dialogue will cease.”

Gill recommends using the following openers to focus discussions on solutions:

  • What would help me to do this well for you is…
  • So I can get this right for you, can I clarify a few things?
  • I'd like to get this right, so can we/I…

Seething quietly won’t fix anything, but getting the problem out in the open can put a stop to the mind-reading games.

Dilemma two: You aren’t trusting staff with the big jobs

The rise to leadership can be a shock. You take the post thinking you’ll be in a position to implement change, and that your vision will form the school improvement plan.

Instead, you find yourself not being entrusted with any kind of meaningful task. In fact, you seem to have less agency than you did further down the pecking order.

In a previous role as a second in department, Laura Rowlands found herself constantly being asked to complete tasks that she felt were beneath her position – such as making minor changes to homework sheets. “I was being used as an admin assistant,” she says.

At first, she thought that it was just a case of proving herself, but as the terms passed, she realised that nothing was going to change. She decided it was a lost cause and eventually left the school.

Why does it happen?

When you’re rising up that leadership ladder, you expect more responsibility, but the reality is you often just find yourself with more accountability. And the more accountable you feel, the trickier it can be to delegate.

Reflecting back, Rowlands now feels that the situation she found herself in came about because of her line manager’s own fear of accountability. The person who is ultimately accountable retains control by holding back on delegating the more high-profile tasks. Essentially, they see the job as too big to get wrong.

What should you do if you have this problem with your boss?

Accountability isn’t always within your control – however, your relationship with your line manager is.

Mary Abbajay, business consultant and author of Managing Up: how to move up, win at work and succeed with any type of boss, suggests that it is normal to have to “prove” yourself before being given more high-profile tasks, so you need to exercise patience initially and make the most of what you’ve got.

Abbajay recommends giving yourself three months to really wow your line manager, even with the smaller tasks. Only then should you start asking for more.

"Don’t complain about your current projects – instead express interest in additional projects. Be sure to include how your skills and/or experience can add value,” she says.

If, after this, you still feel that you have a lack of autonomy, Gill recommends focusing your attention on the things you can control. You may not get as much of a say in the big decisions as you had hoped, but you are still playing an important role in supporting the people who report to you.

"A key shift as you progress further up in school leadership is that it becomes increasingly about leading and developing people, and being accountable for their results,” Gill explains.

The great news for teachers is that developing people is what we do, albeit that it’s now with adults and not pupils. What will help your team and you achieve those results are clear expectations about what success looks like, supporting through mentoring, coaching and training, and, when needed, successful difficult conversations.”

Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 25 September 2020 issue under the headline “Stop getting delegation wrong”

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