"Delegation, Oxytocin and Con Men" by Michael Newman

by Didier Marlier on Sunday April 3rd, 2011

Whether your business calls it delegation or empowerment, the ability of leaders to effectively hand over work to others is a critical part of their role. Whilst most of us do it, often successfully, there are very few of us who would not want to improve. It is therefore surprising that there is so little general understanding about the mechanisms going on in our brain when we delegate.

In the Enablers Network, we are often asked to deal with the after-effects of delegation. A common scenario is that a well intentioned leader has delegated some critical work to an enthusiastic and competent subordinate or team. There has been some (often not quite enough) clarity created about expected results and timescales and apparent freedom is given. The boss feels good about reducing his or her workload and offering one of the team the chance to shine, and the subordinate feels trusted and respected.

The warm feelings last for a few days or weeks, depending on the scale of the task. Then something happens to puncture the bubble. Perhaps the boss has heard nothing about progress, so asks an innocent question about the task. The subordinate misreads the request and a fear is triggered that the boss is stepping into my task. The response contains subtle, unintended, signals that are experienced as protective or defensive by the boss, who naturally is concerned and asks more questions. After a few more interactions, the employee is thinking; “I wasn’t really given the freedom I need; we’re now back to the old micro-management style” and so drifts towards neutrality or passivity. Meanwhile the boss is questioning his own judgement; “I tried delegating and I really hoped it would work out, but it’s now clear I must keep a close eye on things”.

Not only has limited progress been made in the task itself, but the relationship may have deteriorated, undermining the creation of a culture of empowerment.

So how can well intentioned, capable people move from positivity to disillusionment or even cynicism so easily? A blog a few weeks ago mentioned the book, ‘Sleights of Mind; What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains’ by Stephen Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee. This goldmine of a book explains that magicians and con men share many of the same techniques, and offers an explanation of what is happening to the audience or victim. [Note; I am not suggesting that your boss is a magician or con man; it is entirely up to you to make that judgement] The parallels to delegation, however, are clear.

Paul Zak, is a director of the Center for Neuroeconomics at Claremont University, California. He has investigated the neurobiology of trust and influence: “The answer may lie in oxytocin, the hormone released during childbirth, breast feeding, social recognition and cooperation. Numerous studies show that oxytocin makes acts of cooperation feel really, really good. When you feel trusted, your brain releases the hormone, and that causes you to reciprocate the trust. If you inhale oxytocin in a laboratory experiment, your generosity skyrockets.”

It seems that con men are highly skilled at causing your brain to squirt oxytocin to make you trust them:  “The key to a con, is not that you trust the con man, but that he shows he trusts you. Con men ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of oxytocin and its effect on other parts of the brain, you feel good when you help others. The phrase “I need your help” is a potent stimulation for action. The con man seduces you to suspend all suspicion and give up the cash or the information he is looking for.”

Bernie Madoff is a classic example; “He used private golf clubs, and other exclusive establishments to lure investors. He cultivated the illusion that only very special people could invest with him, people he trusted and who could trust in him. He played hard to get: “I don’t need your money. Investments are risky. I don’t know if you want to be in my inner circle.” Madoff, in the eyes of his victims, was one of the good guys who championed the interests of the small investor. Meanwhile, he was milking the oxytocin circuits all the way to the bank.

A leader who wishes to delegate is (hopefully) not trying to con or defraud you. However, the potential to stimulate the release of oxytocin is the same. Perhaps it is even greater because the call for help comes from a person significant to you rather than a stranger. The trust shown to you, as well as the trust you offer back (I trust your good intentions in giving me this job; I trust you to let me do it my way; I trust you to give me credit at the end) can make the experience of delegation highly compelling and uplifting. However a critical element is this unconditional trust you offer back. Paul Zak’s advice on how to avoid a con is relevant here: “Oxytocin’s effects are modulated by your large prefrontal cortex that houses the ‘executive’ regions of your brain. Oxytocin is all emotion, while your prefrontal cortex is all deliberative. If you know how easily your oxytocin system can be turned on by charlatans, you should, with mindfulness, be less vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of you. But don’t be too vigilant; oxytocin causes us to empathize with others, and that is the key to building social relationships.”

So to benefit from the full emotional benefits of delegation, we need to temper our analysis, and banish scepticism and suspicion. We need to trust that the boss is not a con man or out to take advantage of us. Likewise when we delegate, we need to authentically trust that our subordinate will have the motivation and competence to deliver, even if they want to do it a surprising way.

It is here that our old friends, the 3 Agendas of Leadership (Intellectual, Behavioural and Emotional) make their presence felt. After reading this far, acolytes of the Emotional Agenda may well be thinking about celebrating another victory over the Intellectual Agenda. However, please put away the champagne for a moment. As the effects of Oxytocin can be so powerful, it can be easy to get caught up in the joyous spirit of collaboration, trust and good intentions. “It feels good, we are aligned and trustful; let’s just make it happen.”

Unfortunately delegation requires more than just good feelings at the kick-off. Clear expectations, objectives, deadlines, reporting processes, metrics and boundaries need to be established. Paying attention to all these ‘mundane details’ can feel like an immediate undermining of trust, so they are left for later or comfortably neglected. Similarly if micro-behaviour later on is perceived to be contrary to the collaborative spirit, the feeling of loss of trust can be highly damaging. Disciplined focus on the Intellectual Agenda will create vital clarities that will enable trust that was built through the Emotional Agenda to be sustained throughout a project. Conversely, delegation that is instigated in a purely Intellectual way (dry powerpoint presentations, Gantt charts, lists of tasks, etc) without an authentic and personal call for help will not stimulate the energy needed for ultimate performance. Finally, as the task progresses, formal reports and updates must be complemented by conscious signals of continuing trust; the oxytocin rush does needs topping up.

Now that we are able to understand more and more of the brain’s complex mechanisms, we have the new evidence to support what great leaders instinctively know: The Intellectual and Emotional Agendas are powerful, complementary and necessary partners in delegation.

Heartfelt thanks to our partner Michael Newman for this new contribution to the blog. Michael and I will be in Paris running a seminar on “Engaging Leadership” with 50… engaged leaders! Have a good week all!

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