If You Want Something Done, Practice Your Patience

In the science fiction movie The Fifth Element, the character Zorg is a devious and ruthless industrialist ruler, who is time and time again confronted with the incompetence of his assistants. Near the end of the movie, frustrated after yet another of their failures, Zorg picks up the guns himself and utters the words “If you want something done, do it yourself.” It was one of my favorite lines in the movie, being so recognizable. I have probably said the same words dozens of times throughout my career.

Professor and researcher Kenneth W. Thomas would have recognized that Zorg had fallen into the Micromanagement Trap:

You would like to delegate more authority to workers, and decide that you will do this as soon as the workers show they can handle it. In the meantime, you feel the need to closely monitor and control events, making most of the operational decisions. What you are less aware of is that this micromanagement –even if you intend it to be temporary– often prevents the workers from being able to self-manage or otherwise show that they could handle more authority. So workers continue to act in a dependent way and you are trapped into an exhausting attempt to make all the decisions, while wondering why workers aren’t as responsible as you are. [Kenneth W. Thomas – Intrinsic Motivation at Work – p.66]

The workers-are-not-ready-for-this idea is one of the biggest obstacles to empowerment in organizations. The problem is, managers are usually right! Workers are often not fully ready for things that should be delegated. If they were they would probably already be doing those things! But the if-you-want-something-done-do-it-yourself solution is not the best way to get yourself out of such a situation.

ZorgGun You must treat delegation of authority as an investment. It takes a while to get a return on your investment, and until that time delegation will just cost you time, energy, money, and possibly some frustration. Taking work back to do it yourself, before workers are able to do that work without your supervision, is like taking your money out of the bank before being paid interest. The useless effort of giving something away and then taking it back will only leave you with a net loss. In other words, the solution is if-you-want-something-done-practice-your-patience.

After you delegate something to an employee, when things go wrong your only proper response would be: “What did I do wrong?” Maybe your explanation of the goal wasn’t clear enough. Maybe you didn’t properly define the constraints. Perhaps there was nobody coaching the worker. Maybe you should have selected a different level of authority. Or you should have delegated the work to a team instead of just one person. When something bad happens after you delegate a task to a worker, do not take (back) responsibility for the task. Instead, take responsibility for the way you’ve delegated it.

Your business may require you to be as devious and ruthless as Zorg. But do not pick up the guns yourself.

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