Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Management Features
Chris Caldwell
Significant breakthroughs are required, but fully automated facilities are in the future
Dawn Bailey
Helping communities nurture the skilled workforce of the next generation
Brent Simpson
Even if it works in your favor
Mike Figliuolo
Stay cool. It all works out.
Gad Allon
Aligning timing, leadership, and strategy is complicated

More Features

Management News
A tool to help detect sinister email
Developing tools to measure and improve trustworthiness
Manufacturers embrace quality management to improve operations, minimize risk
How well are women supported after landing technical positions?
Adds increased focus on governance
Survey shows 85% of top performers rely on it to achieve business objectives
Key takeaways from Marcum’s 2023 National Manufacturing Survey

More News

Elisa K. Spain


Did I Delegate or Did I Abdicate?

Let the system manage accountability

Published: Monday, January 16, 2017 - 12:02

Most of us who have been in leadership roles for awhile understand the importance of delegating. It’s simply a matter of leverage: The more we delegate, the more gets done. But sometimes we get confused. We think we are delegating, when in fact, we are abdicating. What’s the difference?

Delegate: To entrust a task or responsibility to another person. Abdicate: To fail to do what is required by a duty or responsibility.

For me, one question defines the difference: At what point in the process will I know if my expectations were met? If the answer is, “At the end,” or maybe, “Not until there is a serious problem or a disaster,” I have abdicated, not delegated.

Hm... I guess that means if my intention is to delegate, I must take the following five actions:
1. Clearly outline my expectations.
2. Check in to see if my expectations were understood.
3. Agree how both progress and outcome will be monitored and measured.
4. Agree when and how progress will be reported.
5. Agree when and how progress will be evaluated and adjustments made.

“OK,” you say. “I get that when it comes to team members doing tasks, but certainly you don’t expect me to monitor my leadership team? That would be micromanaging!”

For me, there is a big difference between micromanaging and delegating. When we micromanage, we are checking in, hovering over, second guessing. Delegating, on the other hand, requires none of this. Instead, when we delegate, we let the system manage accountability.

The CEO who hires a new sales manager and then checks in daily on the activities each salesperson is doing, is micromanaging. On the other hand, the sales manager who ties compensation to performance and publicly posts activity reports and results for each salesperson, is allowing the system to manage accountability. The sales team and the CEO can know at any given time who is performing without asking or hovering.

The CEO who hires a president and then “goes fishing,” or goes off to work on acquisitions without first creating agreements with the president concerning the five steps above, is abdicating. On the other hand, the CEO who sits down with the president and together they decide how they will divide roles and responsibilities and agree on the management reporting the CEO needs to monitor and evaluate, is delegating. Once again, the system—in this case a combination of agreements and reporting—is providing the accountability.

Next time you wonder if you are micromanaging instead of abdicating, pause and ask yourself: What systems do I need to put in place so I can delegate instead?


About The Author

Elisa K. Spain’s picture

Elisa K. Spain

Elisa K. Spain is a leadership coach, writer, and an executive peer group facilitator. She is the leader of two Chicago-based Vistage groups. Her dual experience as both executive and entrepreneur has given rise to a unique perspective finding new ways to use her communication and teambuilding skills for Vistage groups that achieve transformational results.


nice post! thx

nice post! thx

Red Bead Experiment

Although your comment about tieing compensation to performance and publicly posts activity reports was not the cruxt of your article, you may find studying Deming's Red Bed Experiment interesting. 

How can a sales person outperform a system? Do metrics of the outcomes of sales really tell you who is "performing"?

Individual "accountability" will eventually lead each sales person to do whatever it takes for each of them to meet their personal goal at the expense of the system. 

Thank you, Dirk van Putten

More on Individual Accountability and Outperforming the System

In a timely coincedence, in today's Quality Digest David Schwinn ("Statistical Thinking for Everyone") writes about tying compensation to indivudal performance as a method of "accountability. This can be related to the Red Bead Experiment. 

From David Schwinn:

A lack of understanding of Myron Tribus’ Perversity Principle led 44 out of 56 schools in the Atlanta area to change test answers with 11 teachers being convicted of misdoing; and more recently, Wells Fargo’s opening of new accounts for its customers without its customers’ permission or even knowledge. As a reminder, Tribus stated: “If you try to improve the performance of a system of people and machines by setting numerical goals and targets for their performance, the system will defeat you and you will pay a price where you did not expect it.” (Myron Tribus and Yoshikazu Tsuda, “The Quality Imperative in the New Economic Era,” Quality First, National Institute for Engineering Management & Systems, 1992).

Amazon’s rate, rank, and fire strategy resulted in an average employee tenure of one year. General Electric, well known for that strategy years ago, stopped doing it during the last few years after understanding the negative repercussions of the strategy. These practices obviously indicate a lack of knowledge about common cause variation vs. special cause variation. 

 300,000 veterans supposedly in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs system may have died at least in part because of the common understanding of the Perversity Principle: the principle that rewarding or punishing people for performance that lies beyond the system’s capability to perform will generate negative outcomes. Again, “the system will defeat you and you will pay a price where you did not expect it.”