Need To Delegate At Work? Pick the Popular People

Why Managers Should Delegate Tasks To Popular Employees

Mar 23, 2021
Management and Organization
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

When managers need to hand off an important task at work, it’s a good idea to pick a popular employee to get the job done, says new research from Maryland Smith.

That’s a different sort of approach for many bosses, say management professors Vijaya Venkataramani and Kathryn M. Bartol, who collaborated on the research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

They note that when it comes to delegating, many managers don't do it often enough or widely enough. Many funnel tasks to the same few people, time after time, and then find themselves in a quandary when their most-trusted, most highly qualified point people are too busy to take on additional tasks.

In those situations, says Venkataramani, the best option is “to delegate to the people in the middle range of competence, who might have the potential to do things.” She and Bartol, in their research, examined employees’ social ties to other team members as a signal for who could best handle important tasks.

“If you have a signal to make it more certain or give you more confidence that a person could do the job, then you can start to delegate to them more, and, over time, build up some of the other people on the team,” says Bartol. “In this way, you can ultimately be a better manager because part of your job is to develop people so that your work unit is more capable.”

In picking popular people, managers can bank on them wanting to preserve their reputations, says Venkataramani. That means they won’t shirk their responsibility, and if they don’t know how to do something, they’ll just ask one of their many friends to help.

It also makes for a better climate in the work unit, Bartol says. If managers are over-delegating to only certain people they trust as competent, it can cause a lot of resentment among the rest of the team. And if managers aren’t delegating at all, then they aren’t getting as much work done as they could be, she says.

For the research, Bartol and Venkataramani collected information from employees and managers at an actual organization. They asked each person about their social networks within their units and to rate their peers for how competent they were. Then they asked the managers whether they’d trust each individual with important tasks. The researchers found that managers said they would delegate tasks to employees with more social ties. They confirmed the results with a series of lab-based scenarios, where participants had to choose to delegate an important task to a team member or an outside consultant.

“We found that the managers who were given information about the social network said they’d go with a really central person, especially when that person’s competence was moderate,” says Venkataramani. “If an individual’s competence is really high, your social networks don’t really matter because we know you are competent, so managers don’t really need to look beyond that. But when they are unsure about an employee’s level of competence, then they can look at that person’s social network as a signal to make decisions.”

It starts with managers really being in-tune with who on their team is well-liked and who is perceived as a jerk, the researchers say.

“Without knowing that, they can’t make these decisions,” says Bartol. “They might give a very important task to somebody who is hated by everybody else. That project will fail because no one would be willing to help them or work with them.”

So how can managers implement the research findings? Venkataramani and Bartol have this advice:

  • Move beyond your inner circle. As a manager, your role includes developing your entire team, says Bartol. Don’t always take the safe way out by delegating important tasks just to the super-efficient and super-competent people. There are other people on your team who would benefit from taking on a task.
  • Know the social structure of your team. Who is friends with whom? Managers should not make assumptions about the social dynamics of their teams, says Venkataramani. “The important caveat is that managers should know more about their team and the informal social structure that connects them because if they are wrong on that, then all these other decisions won’t matter.”
  • Get more done! Managers who delegate get things off their plates so they can move on to the next thing. In the research, those who had a more accurate perception of their team’s social networks saw better team outcomes when they delegated more to team members, says Venkataramani. “We found that it increased team outcomes – like performance and innovation.”
  • See your team thrive. The team members that are delegated to like this also see big benefits, says Venkataramani. “They are more efficient, they have higher self-esteem, they feel more positive, more empowered.” It boosts the whole team, says Bartol. “It’s important for the social fabric of the team for people to have connections to each other – to help each other out when required, to ask for assistance, to get guidance on certain things. It creates a real collegial atmosphere.”

This research, Bartol and Venkataramani say, shows another benefit of having strong social connections at work – a topic they’ve each been studying for years. This research marks the first time they’ve looked at how social ties can help managers make decisions.

“Managers can use these networks like some kind of a looking glass or prism through which you can make perceptions, attributions about other people,” says Venkataramani. “That’s very exciting for us.”

The full research, “Not Very Competent but Connected: Leaders’ Use of Employee Social Networks as Prisms to Make Delegation Decisions,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

About the Author(s)

Vijaya Venkataramani is an associate professor of management & organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She is a former associate editor at the Journal of Applied Psychology. Venkataramani’s research focuses on creativity and innovation in organizations, especially understanding how informal social relationships and social networks at work enable employees’ ability to develop and implement creative ideas. Her recent research has focused on exploring why, although employees may have new ideas, these ideas often go unheard, unrecognized or even prematurely rejected by their managers, and how both employees and managers can address this. Her research has appeared in such journals as the Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology and Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes.

Kathryn M. Bartol

Dr. Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Chair of the Management and Organization Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park. She is the director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). She holds an Executive Coach Certification from the Columbia University Coaching Certification Program.

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