The role of context in delegation -- second in a three-part series

In the first installment of SNEWS®'s series on creating understanding through communicating context, we introduced the concept of thinking of our communications as if they were in outline form. In part two of the series, it's time to look at the role of context in delegation.

In the first installment of SNEWS®'s series on creating understanding through communicating context, we introduced the concept of thinking of our communications as if they were in outline form -- with broad concepts as the Roman numerals and fine details as the lower-case letters with parentheses. We explained how we can travel up the outline, to the foundational elements, by asking "why?" -- then travel down the outline to the minutiae of the communication, by asking "how?" To read the first article in this series, click here. In part two of the series, it's time to look at the role of context in delegation.

The role of context in delegation

Most of us use delegation as an integral tool in doing our job. At one time or another, most of us have had tasks delegated to us. One would think that if we have experienced frustrations from poor delegation, we would place a high priority on effective delegation ourselves. But, human nature tells us, this is not always the case.

We need something done and done right now, so we bark off an order to a colleague and run in the other direction. Later, we rush back to find that he has done what we asked, but it was not at all what we expected or needed. When we are honest with ourselves about the source of the problem, we can admit it was due to our incomplete instructions. Put another way, the colleague failed in his task because we failed to give him adequate context.

Know the context yourself

Sometimes, when our delegated tasks do not live up to our expectations, it is because our expectations were unnecessarily specific. We wanted the task done the way we would do it -- even if it could have been performed equally well a dozen other ways. The goal of delegation should not be to ensure that tasks are done in your style, but rather, that tasks are done in a manner that supports the reason they are assigned, or the desired outcome.

Sometimes we delegate specifics or have detailed expectations because we ourselves don't understand the context of the delegated task. Therefore, it is imperative that we comprehend the context to clearly communicate it when delegating.

Spend some time thinking this through before delegating the task. While you may think you don't have time for this step, it is much more time-efficient than having the project done incorrectly and starting from scratch again.

Ask yourself "why?" a few times, so you can understand the root motivations and the context of the task. Then, ask yourself "how?" and do so with the "why" in mind to avoid unnecessarily specific demands.

When you finally do communicate the task, give some background, explain the motivations, describe the desired outcomes, and then delegate the task. Don't stop there. Have your colleague rephrase the delegated task in his own words, describe what he sees as the results of performing the task, and very importantly, ask if he has any questions, comments or concerns.

When you are delegated a task

Now the tables have turned and you have been assigned a task. Unfortunately, you are not convinced you understand the context and believe that the results might be compromised as a result. What actions should you take?

First, communicate the need for more information. Ask questions. Restate what your understanding is of the task and the desired outcomes.

Second, seek context (move up the outline). Ask why the task is important, what goal it will support, what overall strategy is it a part of. Clearly communicate that you are not challenging that the task be performed, but rather you want to ensure you understand it fully before starting.

Third, test details (move down the outline). Once you have a rough idea or snapshot of how you will perform the task, briefly explain your approach to make sure it is consistent with expectations. This might be a good opportunity to once again restate your understanding of the assignment and why it is being assigned.

In Part 3 of this series by Adages from Ascent, we will discuss how creating context in our communications is an important tool as an effective leader in our organizations.

© Ascent Advising 2008 (reprinted exclusively by SNEWS® with permission)

Dave Bartholomew is a principal with Ascent Advising, providing wide-ranging business advisory services to companies around the globe. His 30 years in leadership roles in the outdoor industry equip him well for coming alongside business owners and executive teams in moving their companies ever upward. His popular email newsletter, “Adages from Ascent”, brings to light vital and innovative concepts for running a business. For a free subscription, and to view past issues of the newsletter, visit and follow the link for "Adages from Ascent." Dave can be reached at or 206-669-7055.


Business 101: Effective delegation

Delegation. It sounds simple and most of us assume we have a good understanding of what it means, but it's probably one of the most misunderstood terms used in business. Let's look at two examples to further delve into the world of managing effective delegation: 1. "Hey, man, more

The advantages of managed expectations -- Part V

Some may construe managing expectations as manipulative, but it need not be. Expectations need to be managed or else disappointment is likely. The alternative is to just let expectations "happen" and thus leave meeting those expectations substantially up to chance. Regardless of more

The dangers of unstated expectations -- Part II

"Charlie, as the new warehouse supervisor, it is your responsibility to take care of the warehouse. Do a good job of it and you will get a big raise." Naturally, Charlie is pretty excited about this. He has a new job with new responsibilities and a real chance for more money. But more