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How to delegate your way to a better working life

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VOL: 97, ISSUE: 36, PAGE NO: 34

Jacqueline Wheeler, DMS, MSc, RGN, is a lecturer at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College

Some people think that delegation and abdication amount to the same thing, but this is not true. Delegation is where one person appoints another to act as a chosen representative on his or her behalf. Abdication, on the other hand, is the act of giving up power, either by abandoning it or resigning from the post (Mackenzie, 1998).

In the current stressful NHS climate, with its underpaid, overstretched workforce, the logistics of delegation may be difficult and most nurses practice abdication in some form. Yet delegation offers many potential benefits to both the individuals involved and the organisation, resulting in the optimum use of human resources and improved performance.

Why delegate?

It is a fundamental principle of management that there must be delegation to achieve organisational effectiveness. As an organisation grows in size, so the extent of delegation must increase for it to function and progress. The nature of the NHS and the various activities undertaken within it dictate that the workload is distributed among various members of the workforce. Delegation has, therefore, to occur at both an organisational and an individual level.

At an individual level, delegation is the process of entrusting authority and responsibility to others, to manage the work of other people and meet the objectives of the organisation. Every time nurses ask someone to do something for them, or the nurse in charge divides a unit into teams and assigns team leaders, delegation has occurred.

Delegation is also a means by which health care workers can receive training and develop their skills, although it is subject to abuse. For example, nurses could delegate most of their workload and then reward themselves with extra breaks, while their subordinates have to forfeit their breaks to complete their tasks, or a delegator could favour one nurse over another, allowing the favoured one to carry out more appealing or rewarding tasks.

Balance and barriers

Knowing when, how and to whom you can delegate requires a complex understanding of the task in hand, the process of delegation, and the skills and existing workloads of the people available. It is important to achieve the right balance, because delegating too much may result in a loss of control, while failing to delegate or not delegating enough can lead to duties not being completed - as well as a demotivated and uncooperative team.

Personal delegation can be inhibited when staff have detailed job descriptions and are accountable to both an employer and a professional body. How often are staff reluctant to accept additional responsibilities that appear to fall outside the scope of their job description?

In addition to the ‘it’s not my job’ attitude, there is also the ‘if you want a job done properly do it yourself’ philosophy - a logical theory based on the fact that it sometimes takes longer to tell someone what to do than it takes to do the job. This attitude prevents nurses from delegating, making them more likely to be overworked, stressed and have little, if any, job satisfaction.

Benefits for the delegating nurse

Delegation enables you to perform other duties that cannot be delegated. Initially, the amount of time saved may not be significant, but once the person you have delegated a task to becomes proficient, the time made available to you will be noticeable. You can then focus on doing a few tasks well rather than many ineffectively. You will also be spared the routine of having to perform tasks that do not have a high priority on your schedule.

Through the proper selection, assignment and coordination of tasks, you can mobilise resources to achieve more than you would be able to do alone. This should lead to a more even distribution of the workload and allow individuals time to complete all their duties. You also become more accessible for consultation with junior staff, superiors or other managers, which improves communication.

Delegation not only trains and empowers others: it also tests their strengths, performance and suitability for promotion. It shows that you have confidence in a person’s abilities and can lead to a strengthening of the team, raising morale and increasing motivation and job satisfaction. Encouraging staff to have a positive attitude towards their work and being willing to discharge your authority and responsibility will help them to delegate effectively.

Some nurses are afraid to delegate in case junior staff members prove themselves better able to do the job. Nurses should remember that the objective is to get work done efficiently through the efforts of all the team. If a junior nurse does a particularly good job you should say so - it ultimately reflects positively on you.

The final reason to learn delegation skills is for personal and career development. When others are able to take responsibility for different areas, you attain maximum flexibility and ensure that the department will not come to a standstill in your absence. Nurses who are unable to delegate at their current level will not be able to delegate at the next, which reduces their chances of promotion.

Benefits for team members

The failure of senior nurses to delegate effectively deprives team members of opportunities to improve their skills and assume greater responsibility. When staff realise that they are not learning and gaining the experience they could, they may leave for more challenging and supportive environments. Unfortunately, the most talented team members - whom you least want to lose - are the most likely to go.

Proper delegation encourages team members to understand and influence the work the department does by allowing them to incorporate their values into the workplace. Participation in decision-making increases motivation, morale and job performance and allows new ideas, viewpoints and suggestions to flourish. Remember, a routine task for you is often a growth opportunity for someone else, and that by increasing the involvement of team members you increase their enthusiasm and initiative. As with senior nurses, a team member who receives extensive delegation will be ready and able to advance to new positions.

Benefits for the organisation

If both senior and junior nurses benefit from delegation, it follows that the organisation as a whole benefits. The greater the employee participation, the greater the employee commitment to the job and the organisation.

An organisation is most responsive to outside change when the individuals who make decisions are closest to the problems because they then have the most information on which to base an intelligent decision. Through effective delegation many people are trained to do the same tasks, so the workforce is more flexible. When someone is absent or a crisis occurs, others can step in.

Everybody wins with effective delegation, but delegation is particularly important if you want to survive and grow in an organisation.

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