Delegating can be hard for even the strongest leaders, but it’s not the assignment of work that causes us to stumble most often. It’s practicing the art of the kickback.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you’ve got the whole delegation thing nailed. You’ve relinquished that ego-hungry need for control over each and every project and spreadsheet and call script and office supply order. You no longer stay late at work doing the things your team is perfectly capable of doing because no one can do it like you can do it. You spent the time showing Wolfgang how to complete the TPS report, even though you could have done it seven times over in that hour-long block. You even set deadlines for the tasks you delegate, and since—as we said—you’ve nailed this thing, you even check in along the way, making sure that Wolfgang is on track to submit his first-ever solo TPS report on time and in the right excel format.
But then something happens that makes you want to either punch the drywall in your office or hide in the parking garage (depending on your fight-or-flight tendencies).
Wolfgang sends you a finished product that is generously described as crappy.
And there you find yourself, gripped with the very disappointment that prevented you from delegating all those years in the first place. Wolfgang let you down. Wolfgang proved the truth that’s been smoldering inside of you—the belief that no one does it as good as you do it. And if everyone is just going to disappoint you anyways, why not just do it all yourself again, declining the delegation dance from now on? Right? Wrong. There might be a better way.
Here’s a hint: If you’re chronically disappointed by your team—that lowly no-good bunch who lets you down time and time again—it’s 100% a you problem, not a team problem.
Great leaders don’t accept mediocrity. Great leaders do what it takes to mobilize an outstanding team to exceed their expectations and deliver work products that are better than what they could have produced in the first place. Because that’s what leadership is: getting results through other people. By throwing in the delegation towel you’re throwing in the towel at being a leader.
So now that Wolfgang tossed his piece of crap TPS report via email at you and has already gone home, you’re faced with the Delegation Dilemma: to fix his work, or not to fix his work? We can assume you handled this with some sort of excuse mash-up of, “It’s due first thing in the morning so I had to fix it myself,” and, “He worked really hard on it and I didn’t want to deflate him.” Some sort of rationale that leads you to fix his work amidst the burning embers of resentment and defeat… because that’s what we see most people do (and it’s what I did for so many tiring years).
Let’s keep playing this game. Assuming you did fix Wolfgang’s work, what happens then?

  1. Nothing happens. Wolfgang doesn’t know you fixed his work because you didn’t address it with him, so he’ll either continue lobbing mediocre stuff over the net to you, or you’ll stop delegating. Either way, you lose.
  2. Wolfgang finds out you adjusted the report, and if he spent time on it and thought he did a good job, he now thinks you’re a control freak and you’ll never trust him no matter how hard he works. So he works a little less hard on future reports because that’s what you’ve trained him to do.
  3. Wolfgang finds out you adjusted the report, knows he didn’t do a super job in the first place, and he realizes that nothing happened so he keeps delivering subpar work to you because that’s what you’ve trained him to do. Wolfgang ain’t no fool.
  4. Wolfgang’s potential slowly but surely drains out of him as you fail to help him get better, even though he was a willing and able worker bee who just wanted to do a good job and just needed some guidance. You robbed him of the opportunity to get better, Mrs. Martyr.
  5. All of the above.

How to Break The Destructive Cycle of Fixing Your Team’s Crappy Work:

  1. Make sure your team knows what is expected of them, down to every detail.

This means putting your phone down and showing them what amazing looks like, how to do it, exactly what you want to come across your desk by end of day next Tuesday. (But you already knew that part, and that’s what’s so frustrating, is that you were super explicit with Wolfgang and you SHOWED him how the TPS was supposed to look. It’s okay. Chill out for a second. Remember that you’ve been an enabler and take responsibility.)

  1. Kick back anything less than what you’ve expected.

Your report doesn’t look right? Never suffer in silence. Kick it back. The graphics aren’t what you asked for? Kick it back. The appendix is all messed up? Kick it back. Be direct and kind about why you’re kicking stuff back, but no matter what, kick it back. This isn’t personal—you’re merely following through on the expectations you very clearly set forth at the beginning of this little shit show.
Sometimes the kickback is a simple email: “Thanks for sending this—it’s a good start. I was expecting the full analysis including the Q1 results, like we reviewed. Please add in and send back to me by end of day. Let me know if you have any questions.” Sometimes the kickback has to be a conversation, especially when it’s about a more major flub: “So Wolfgang, I’m concerned about this report, since it doesn’t look at all like what we discussed last week. Tell me your thoughts on it?” There is power in the open-ended question.

  1. Be prepared to do something about it if you continue to get crappy work from your team.

Great news! You’ve officially taken responsibility for enabling your team to deliver shoddy work product to you (because fixing it = enabling crappy workmanship, JUST TO BE CLEAR). But once you’ve started kicking the garbage back, firmly and fairly, there is an expectation that people will begin delivering on (and even exceeding) your expectations. Most people will do this, and it’s a thing of beauty.
But if Wolfgang continues to send you the TPS report riddled with errors, despite­ being clear on the expectations and being asked to repeatedly fix his mistakes, a different kind of conversation is in order. That’s a performance management conversation for another article, but (spoiler alert)” it goes something like this: “Wolfgang, I think we need to have a more serious conversation. We’ve spoken several times about the expectations of this report, and there are consistent issues with what you’re producing. What’s that about?” to “What support do you need to complete this accurately each week?” and “I’m sure you can understand that this is an important part of the work we do here, that this report matters. If your attention to detail doesn’t improve starting with this next report, we’re going to have to have a conversation about whether this role is the right fit for you. I want you to succeed, and I believe you can, and right now the ball is in your court. Does that make sense?” and of course, ”We might need to take you out back behind the woodshed, Wolfgang.”
Delegating can be magical if you’re prepared to follow through beyond the initial steps of asking for help, being clear about what that help looks like, providing support, and checking in along the way. Being fair and firm when you need to kick back substandard work is the only way to do great work as a team, raise the bar with what you’re all working on, and not be the one staying until 9:30 p.m. doing it all yourself. Practice the art of the kickback, again and again and again, until Wolfgang either gets it or gets out.

Jodi Wellman

Jodi is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life, loves red Skittles (maybe too much) and finally got a Happy Spectacular logo tattoo.