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As business owners, you hear it all the time: to run your business effectively, increase profitability, and give yourself freedom from the perpetual need to work, you need to delegate. Still, so many practice owners struggle to get tasks of their plate and into the hands of employees.
Delegating isn’t easy. Most of us are not born experts at delegation. Rather, it’s a skill and habit that must be developed, with practice and attention.
Despite the compelling evidence of the impact delegation has on profitability, efficiency, and morale, it remains a real challenge across the business world, in organizations of all sizes, structures, and cultures. The late John Hunt, a professor at the London Business School and an expert in organizational behavior, researched delegation and found that fewer than a third of managers considered themselves good at delegating. Hunt also learned that employees shared a similarly dim view of their managers delegating skills: only 1 in 3 considered their managers adept at delegation.
I taught myself how to delegate, and now I work with other practice owners who are learning this important skill in a fraction of the time it took me. There are some common hurdles to effective delegation that many practice owners, and their employees, face.
Delegation challenges for owners and managers
Fear and ego
Fear, and its close relative—ego—are nearly always at play in resistance to delegation, especially for small business owners. A healthy ego encourages us to take growth-producing risks—like starting your chiropractic or physical therapy practice in the first place. But the ego that says, “I’m the only one who can do this,” that hangs on to every bit of work related to your practice, can make it all but impossible to give tasks away to even highly qualified employees.
There is no shortage of fears that can affect small business owners and inhibit their ability to delegate. Financial fears certainly often play a role. Even though delegation is critical to freeing yourself to focus on the work that’s most important and profitable to your business, many practice owners fear the costs of farming out work, whether to employees or outside contractors.
It’s also common for owners to fear how employees will think of them when they’re approached with new tasks, how employees will view them as managers and what employees will think of their work processes.
As any of us who’ve faced an impending deadline know, fear can be a pretty powerful short-term motivator. Research indicates that fear can be effective in motivating to avoid failure. But in business and in life, we all want to do more than avoid failure, right? We want to thrive, and fulfill our own, personal vision of success. Overcoming fear, and keeping ego in check, open up the pathways to successful delegation—and to achieving that vision.
Trust is critical to delegating well. You need to feel able to trust employees to do the work you’ve decided to put in their hands. The battle cry of the small business owner—“I would do ‘X’ if I had a better staff’—speaks to the serious lack of trust that exists for many managers and owners in small businesses.
A culture of trust in the workplace boosts productivity, reduces stress, encourages collaboration, elevates energy and diminishes the risk of burnout. Trust in the workplace also improves financial outcomes. This isn’t wishful thinking: these positive consequences of a workplace culture of trust have been documented in rigorous research.
There’s a biological underpinning to our ability to trust one another that scientists are actively exploring—it’s pretty fascinating stuff. We know that exhibiting trust in others and being trustworthy stimulates oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with stimulating social connections, bonding, generosity, and emotional intimacy. In turn, higher levels of oxytocin make it easier for people to engage in trust—when oxytocin levels rise, trusting others feels less risky. Oxytocin also boosts empathy, paving the way for collaboration and cooperation. (It will probably come as little surprise to hear that stress inhibits oxytocin, thereby making us less apt and able to extend trust. Higher oxytocin levels, on the other hand, help us to better manage stress.)
Trust, then, is a kind of self-fulfilling behavior, including at a biological level. Acts of trusting and being trustworthy engender more of the same. Other habits in the workplace can cultivate trust, and help make delegating easier, including:
- Setting clear, measurable, achievable goals
- Giving employees autonomy over their work
- Recognizing achievements
Delegation challenges for employees
It’s important to think about delegation not only from your perspective as an employer, but also from the perspective of your employees. Staff experience challenges in the delegation process, too. As an owner and manager, it’s your responsibility to understand these challenges and to manage delegation within your business to minimize them. That’s to your employees’ benefit—and it’s also to the benefit of your practice.
Lack of clarity in expectations
Employees often struggle with delegation when the work they’re asked to take on lacks clear expectations. As an employee, it’s hard to know if you’re doing things right, and working successfully, if you don’t really understand what’s expected of you. For owners and managers, successful delegating actually starts well before handing off the work. It begins with identifying tasks suitable for delegating, and also identifying the specific goals and outcomes linked to those tasks. Using metrics and other objective measures of performance can help in creating clear, concrete expectations. I’ll talk more about metrics, and how they can help delegation, below.
Lack of clarity in job description
Whether as employees or owners, we’ve all seen how job descriptions can change and evolve. Especially in small businesses, employee responsibilities often migrate and shift in response to growth, changes in demand for services, staffing, and other workflow issues. Often, practice owners I work with express guilt about delegating to employees, worrying that their staff will resent the “extra” responsibility and workload. That’s s sign it’s time to revisit a job description.
Relevant, specific job descriptions aren’t only useful for the hiring process. They’re also part of managing employees effectively, and making thoughtful, informed decisions about delegating. Updating job descriptions regularly, and communicating with employees about changes to the scope of their work, helps keep owners and staff on the same page about roles, responsibilities, and priorities—and helps avoid confusion, misunderstanding, and a sense of overload that can interfere with effective delegation.
Inability to fully engage in work that’s delegated
It’s my belief, reinforced through experience as a practice owner, entrepreneur, and coach, that people truly want to help out, to join a group effort, to be part of a mission bigger than themselves. Effective delegation doesn’t only assign tasks—it empowers people to fully commit to the work they’re given, and fortifies them with a meaningful degree of responsibility, autonomy, and discretion. Employee engagement has a direct and significant effect on performance, research shows.
Still, micromanagement comes all too easily for many practice owners. It may feel as though you’re doing the responsible, conscientious thing by overseeing the details of your employees’ work. But if you’ve set clear expectations and goals, it shouldn’t be necessary. Moreover, it’s not an effective use of your time. Nor does it help your employees. Research shows micromanagement lowers productivity, depresses morale, and contributes to employee turnover. Among employees, micromanagement is cited as one of the top reasons for leaving a job. Often, it’s the owner or manager stepping back—with a commitment to being a resource when necessary—that allows employees to engage and take ownership of their work.
Delegating physical therapy and chiropractic treatment
For physical therapy and chiropractic practice owners, delegating treatment responsibilities can be especially tricky. This is the core and the heart of your business, and trusting other clinicians to deliver patient care can be tough. Many practice owners hold tight to the belief that they are the only ones who can deliver treatment, and are reluctant to hire and delegate to other clinicians—especially if those clinicians are less experienced than the owners themselves.
If growing your practice is something you want, then delegating treatment is essential. When thinking about delegation, it’s always a good idea to begin with the end in mind, to think carefully about the outcome you’re looking to achieve by transferring work to a member of your staff. Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to delegating treatment. It helps to shift your thinking about your role, from the “do-er” or provider, to the mentor and supporter of others, and to focus on creating an organizational culture that supports professional development and fosters excellence.
Ways to make delegating easier
Work from the same side of the table
This is a powerful way to re-frame how you think about and execute delegation with your employees. Let go of the notion that delegation is adversarial, or even has two sides. Instead of approaching delegation as a process with two opposing sides—yours and your employees—opt to work cooperatively.
As an owner, it’s up to you to decide what tasks you want to delegate. But you can work with your employees to develop the most effective ways to transition responsibilities, and to identify systems that can make the work go well in their hands. This collaborative approach to delegation engages employees right from the start—and more engagement means stronger performance.
Transparency with employees helps engender trust and encourages reciprocal honesty. One of the loneliest pressure that can befall practice owners is the feeling that they need to have all the answers, all the time—that they must have everything figured out. Remember, the growth mindset values learning and seeking help over mastery.
There’s nothing like the prospect of handing over a task to someone else to make you acknowledge your own lack of expertise, understanding, and knowledge. (For me, one of those areas was bookkeeping.) That’s not a negative—it’s an opportunity. Tell your employee, “I know what I want the outcome of this work to be, but I don’t know exactly the best way to get there.” By working from the same side of the table, you enable your employee to put their talents, expertise, and creative thinking to address the issue.
Don’t delegate a problem
Too often, delegating turns into dumping—as in, taking a problematic task off of your plate and dumping it on theirs, without having identified a solution. The delegation process can be an opportunity to find solutions to lingering problems for low-energy tasks you’ve been carrying. Practice honesty—first with yourself and then with your employees—and work cooperatively to address problems and create workable solutions, as part of the delegating process.
Identifying objective measurements of success is a key element of successful delegating. These metrics allow both you, the owner, and your employees to understand the goals of the task at hand, and the means by which you’ll evaluate (and celebrate) progress and achievement. Helping practice owners identify and implement metric-based systems is one of the most rewarding and important aspects of my work as a coach and consultant.
Useful metrics can be attached to every position within the scope of your practice. One clear metric for your front-desk person? Cancellation rates. For physical therapists and chiropractors working within your practice, numbers of patient visits are an essential metric. The employee handling your marketing will work with metrics involving referrals, events and meetings. Using metrics will deepen your own understanding of your business. It will also allow you to delegate work with clear and specific goals, and give you and your employees a framework for tracking and discussing progress and challenges.
Giving credit for a job well done is a no-brainer in good management. Yet too often, positive feedback and acknowledgment of success get lost in a busy, hectic practice. When you’re tracking and reporting metrics, you have an opportunity to go beyond the “good work” accolades, to highlight specific, objective progress and successes among employees to whom you’ve delegated work. Take advantage of that opportunity.
Staff meetings are a great time to routinely celebrate accomplishments, whether it’s a rise in referrals, a drop in cancellations, or a rising rate of collections. Taking time to celebrate your staff’s success boosts accountability, empowers and energizes employees, and builds employee loyalty.
Identifying and working through the challenges you face in delegating opens up terrific opportunities to engage more constructively with your employees, and to get more done with your valuable time.