Tom Sawyer at Work: The Art of Delegation

Managers can learn a lot about how to successfully delegate work by reading Mark Twain’s classic story about Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence. The story tells how Tom delegates his work to the other boys in town, and how work that is delegated can be completed joyfully and efficiently.

Tom completed his survey of all the whitewashing Aunt Polly had assigned him, and he felt a deep melancholy feeling that made existence but a burden. As the boys in town passed by, Tom thought about paying a boy or two to complete the project, but he did not have enough to buy an afternoon’s worth of freedom. Then an inspiration struck Tom as he went back to work, but instead of grumbling he went back to work in a calm and serene manner.

Soon a boy by the name of Ben Rogers came by and told Tom it was a shame he could not go swimming because he had to work. Tom replied, “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is it suits Tom Sawyer.” After a few minutes of watching Tom enjoying his work, Ben asked if he could try a bit of whitewashing. Tom told Ben that perhaps only one boy in a thousand or even in two thousand could paint the fence in the way Aunt Polly wanted it done.

Reluctantly Tom surrendered his brush to Ben in exchange for an apple core. Soon more and more boys came to join Ben in whitewashing the fence. Tom sat back under a shade tree and directed the activity, and it wasn’t long before the fence had three coats of whitewash on it. Tom learned an important lesson that day about human behavior without knowing it. In order to get a man to covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain.

As managers, what can we learn from Tom Sawyer?

  1. Remember that delegating work is not the same as assigning work. When you delegate work, you are sharing YOUR work. When you assign work, you are not sharing your work but simply handing out tasks that employees are already responsible to complete. The overall goal of delegating work is to free you up for other endeavors, and to teach job skills to your employees.
  2. Make the work you want to delegate inviting. No one will want to accept a task or project if you are grumbling about it. Tom would have never been able to interest other boys in whitewashing if he had been complaining and grumbling.
  3. Risk delegation when an employee asks to help you with your work. Oh, sure you can pretend to hold back, as Tom did, but do allow the employee to help you in the end.
  4. Assign worth to the work delegated to the employee. Tom told Ben that only a rare individual could paint the fence the way Aunt Polly wanted it done. When you either ask an employee to take on part of your work, or when they ask to complete it, assign worth to the work and assign importance to the person who will complete it.
  5. Remember to monitor the individual who receives the delegated work. Delegation should be challenging enough to the employee so it stretches him or her to gain new skills. Therefore, the employee may need coaching and encouragement in order to complete the task or project up to your standards.
  6. Following your delegation of work, do not sit back under a shade tree as Tom did. If you delegate successfully, you should start to see a multiplying effect. Delegation should free you to be more creative and it should give you time to consider new tasks to complete, which will help the company meet its goals.

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