Dumping and delegating

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A position of authority can easily lead to an abrogation of responsibility.

The distinction between dumping and delegating is something that begins as intuitive knowledge but often gets progressively lost in the transition from subordinate to leader. It’s a difference that’s initially easy to recognise but hard to define, but one that can readily blur the further one moves into executive positions and away from the frontline.

Put simply, dumping is when you can see there’s a problem but you don’t fully understand it or don’t know how best to address it, so you tell a subordinate to sort it out. Delegation is when you know what to do or what needs to happen, and might even be able to take care of it yourself, but to save time or maximise efficiency you assign it to someone else.

The key element is that of responsibility. Dumping is when responsibility for the problem is shifted onto the subordinate (“I’m holding you accountable…”), so that the executive doesn’t have to deal with it; delegating is when the executive retains responsibility but passes on the actual work. The subordinate works on the problem, but is shielded from ultimate responsibility from on high.

The lines of communication are often a telltale indicator of the nature of a task, and where the responsibility sits. When dumped on, a subordinate is often left to get on with the problem without much assistance, communication between the subordinate and the executive is poor, and the subordinate is berated for lack of progress. When delegated to, a subordinate will retain good communication with the executive (note that this need not mean regular communication), and both parties have good awareness of the state – or at least the urgency – of the situation.

The causes of dumping are manifold, but often stem from the irritation and embarrassment associated with the realisation – subliminal or overt – that one is out of one’s depth. Dumping on a subordinate relieves the burden of responsibility, but is poor leadership. It is also a misguided way of seeking to retain power, by attempting to shift blame for a potential failure away from the person at the top.

It’s a lesson that’s relevant in all walks of life, but is particularly pertinent in academia when a group leader is responsible for a very varied range of activities (research, teaching, mentoring, administration). In research terms too, it’s quite likely that the group leader’s original area of practical expertise will gradually be superseded by technological innovations, forcing a need to either dump or delegate work that they no longer fully understand.

As frightening as it may be to trust one’s subordinates, to delegate a task but not shun responsibility for it, it’s worth remembering that the consequences apply to success as well as failure. In the event of a successful conclusion to a task, the subordinates of people who dump usually feel that they’re being robbed of credit, because it was clearly their necks on the block if things didn’t work out; the subordinates of people who delegate will often feel more generous in apportioning credit to the person at the top, because they recognise that while they were empowered, they were also protected.

So if you ascend to heady realms of authority and find that you must do something from a great height, delegate.

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