Management, delegation, and the Magic of Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Updated: Sep 24

Just about all our clients tell us they need to “do more with less.” Consequently, they would like their managers to be more effective delegators. They see delegation as a way their managers can become more productive while simultaneously developing their people. Everybody wins – companies, managers, and workers.

So why is it not happening that way? What gets in the way. They’re trying, aren’t they?

Why Delegation Doesn’t Work Like It Should

One thing in the way could be the magic of self-fulfilling prophecy. If a manager believes that someone is not quite ready to perform a task at the same level the manager could perform that task, the very act of delegating the task could be sabotaged – by the manager.

Self-fulfilling prophecy is the process by which our expectations are communicated – we use words, body language, and tone to express what we really think. If we have doubts, we don’t have to clearly express them – they come across in our behavior.

When a person receiving delegation perceives there is doubt or concern that they will not succeed, the reception of the delegated task is loaded with negative emotional context. And none of this is communicated by words alone. The manager’s facial expressions, choice of words, and tone combine to signal to the direct report something like, “I’m concerned” – “this assignment has some risks” – “watch out for this, for that, and be careful, the big boss is watching”.

Before they even begin to attempt the task, the direct report is tempted to say something like, “I’ll give it my best try.” They’ve already thrown out the possibility that they will not succeed, but they should be given credit for “trying” hard.

Activating the Magic of Self-fulfilling Prophecy

The manager has planted seeds of concern; the negative magic (1) of self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) is about to help those seeds take root and grow out of control. SFP’s magic converts (2) doubts and fears of the manager into behaviors of the direct report. Where the manager says, “watch out,” the direct report takes (3) multiple, unnecessary precautions – wasting time, energy, and taking redundant steps. The overly cautious approach and slow results (4) convince the manager that their initial fears were correct: this direct report is not yet up to performing this task well (enough.) [See Thinking Traps part 1] The manager sees that the delegation process is not working as desired and steps in to take over or micro-manage the situation. In either case, the delegation process has not helped the organization, the manager, or the direct report.

How to Get SFP to Work for You

Managers who understand SFP learn how to modify their behavior to generate the positive power of SFP.

Incorporate SFP into Delegation Steps

  1. Identify the purpose of the assignment: why is this important? Why will the direct report succeed? Spell this out clearly.

  2. Describe what success will look like for everyone involved, including the direct report

  3. Describe the desired result – the goals in SMART terms

  4. Identify specific actions, steps, processes required – be sure the direct report understands what to do. Get them to describe how they might do these steps. Get them to identify alternatives.

  5. Establish check-in process

  6. What resources are available for the task ($, time, equip, people, etc)

  7. Milestones/dates

  8. Level of authority provided

  9. How & who will make decisions during the task

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