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Complete Guide to Delegation for Leaders

How to Get Results Through Others by Delegating Like a Pro

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Historically, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with delegation.

My earliest memories of delegation involve elementary school group projects in which my classmates didn’t take the assignment seriously. More often than not, this left me in the undesirable position of having to take over and do almost everything the night before the deadline. Since then, every time I have delegated something, it felt like I was taking a monumental risk.

I’m sure most of us have had similar experiences of delegation gone wrong.

However, once I became a psychologist and began coaching executives, I had a complete change in perspective about delegation. There are actual tried-and-true ways to delegate successfully.

When done right, delegation simply makes your life a whole lot easier. And, frankly, delegation is a required skill for leadership and upper management.

Delegating isn’t difficult. It simply requires having an understanding of what to delegate (and why), how to assign tasks with crystal clear expectations, and how to check in to make sure that everything is progressing smoothly.

Want to know the secrets to delegation? By the time you’re finished reading this article, you’ll know:

  1. Why many of your excuses for not delegating are likely untrue.
  2. How to determine which tasks you should delegate.
  3. How to delegate like a pro.
  4. How to follow up to get the best results.

Let’s dive in.

I. Four Common Objections to Delegation — and Why They Need to Be Challenged

During my career I’ve coached hundreds of professionals who have had mixed feelings about delegation. By far, the most common concern I’ve heard from leaders is that they know they should delegate more often, but for any number of reasons, they perceive it as an unproductive— or even risky — proposition.

Here are the four most common reservations I hear about delegation — and my rebuttals to them:

1. “It’s faster if I do it myself.”

Leaders who make this excuse contend that by the time they explain the task to their employee, teach her to do it, check on progress, review it, give feedback, and wait for revisions, they could have personally completed the task ten times over. As a result, instead of going through this perceived hassle, they opt to just do it themselves.

Admittedly, at times, delegation can be time-consuming. However, if you keep doing everything yourself, you’re only increasing your own workload in the short-term, and doing nothing to improve the situation over the long-term. Therefore, for appropriate tasks that aren’t time-sensitive, make the commitment to train others to do them. Over time, this will help you to be more efficient, as your team will be able to take more and more off of your to-do list.

2. “He/She won’t do it like I would.”

If you’re a control freak or a perfectionist, you might find yourself reluctant to delegate for fear that someone else’s end product will be different from what you would have produced. So, instead of risking this outcome, you choose to keep the task for yourself.

Unless the task you are delegating has a clear right-or-wrong answer, I encourage you to consider that a different approach doesn’t necessarily mean a worse approach. In fact, you could possibly learn something new from seeing how someone else goes about solving a problem. If you’re delegating appropriately, you can still delegate certain parameters, while allowing your employee the freedom to be creative in determining a solution. Doing so will likely increase their level of ownership and engagement with the task.

Furthermore, keep in mind that if you’ve become highly involved in the day-to-day tactical minutiae of your area, there’s a good chance that you’re not spending enough time attending to the more strategic aspects of your business. By resisting the urge to do everything yourself, you can free up your time for higher impact tasks.

3. “There’s no one on my team to delegate to.”

In some cases, this particular excuse might be true. If you and your direct reports have entirely different technical skill sets, then you really may not be able to assign a particular task to anyone else.

However, more commonly when I hear this objection, the leader is telling me that they believe their team members lack the talent or knowledge to be able to do it.

If you find yourself saying this a lot, this could simply be a different way of framing objection number 1. Someone on the team could complete the task, but you just don’t feel like taking the time to help him or her. If that’s you, I reiterate that it’s worth it to make the time investment now, so that you can free yourself up in the future.

If, however, you believe that your team really does lack the ability to do much of what you would delegate to them, then you might be overlooking an important part of your role as a leader, which is talent management.

It’s your job to build a strong team of capable people. It’s your job to make sure that they are able to fulfill the demands of their positions. It’s your job to give people stretch assignments that will enable them to develop and grow. So, if you feel there’s no one on your team to delegate to, it likely suggests that you need to approach your position differently, so you can start building some bench strength through hiring and coaching.

4. “My team has too much to do already.”

Again, there are instances in which this could be entirely true. If your team has been operating on all cylinders for an extended period of time, you could potentially burn them out by delegating more to them.

However, in most instances when I hear this objection, it’s from well-meaning and compassionate managers who are too protective of their people. They would rather act as martyrs and burn themselves out than ask their employees to do a little more.

If you make this excuse a lot, I first recommend aiming to be as objective as possible in determining whether your team really does have too much going on. If they do, it might be a good time to assess priorities, and perhaps scale back on the lower impact items that don’t currently require attention.

If, however, you determine that your team doesn’t have too much going on, then you might want to reassess how you’re looking at your role. While I would never suggest that you should dump all the work on everyone else and then sit back in your office watching Netflix, it’s important to keep in mind that as a leader, your role is typically more that of an orchestrator of the work rather than a doer of the work.

If you’re heads-down doing the work, the odds are pretty good that you’re shirking some of the other aspects of leadership.

In addition, if you have ambitious people on your team who hope to move up the corporate ladder, one of the things they’ll have to learn is how to manage a larger workload. If you never give them the opportunity to figure out how to prioritize, manage their time, and deal with more responsibility, how will they develop those skills? Stretch them a little bit in that regard, and they just might surprise you.

The bottom line? There may be times when your reservations about delegating are accurate. But, if you heed them every time, you are virtually guaranteeing that you’re going to perpetuate the status quo with respect to how work gets done in your area. So, commit to delegating. Over time, you’ll increase your efficiency, and have more time to focus on higher level considerations in your business.


II. How to Decide Which Tasks to Delegate

Now that you’ve determined that delegation is indeed a good idea, your next step is to decide which tasks to delegate. To get started, make a list of your tasks and activities, and then classify them as tasks that:

  1. Only you can do.
  2. You or someone else can do.
  3. Only someone else can do.
Twenty20

Then, you’ll need to decide to whom each task should be delegated. In some cases, it might be obvious — for example, if a given project is within the bounds of someone’s job responsibilities, then it’s generally a no-brainer that you would assign that task to him. Or, if a particular task would be a breeze for one of your people to complete, then you might give it to her to get it done quickly.

In other instances, you might opt to delegate in order to develop an employee. For example, you could assign a project on a topic which is unfamiliar to a particular employee in order to help that employee expand his knowledge base. Or, you could give someone with minimal management experience the task of heading a team project, to help her develop leadership skills. When supervised appropriately, these sorts of delegated tasks can become a win-win — they’ll help you to manage your workload, while providing your employee with valuable experience. Just make sure to allot ample time, since the likelihood is thatfeedback and revisions will increase for these types of activities.

Self-Monitor to Make Sure You’re Delegating Adequately

When your aim is to delegate more, use self-monitoring to make sure you’re making the most of potential opportunities to delegate. To do this, I recommend monitoring yourself in two ways.

First, before you start any task, consider whether or not it’s a task that you really should be doing. Ask yourself, “Is this the highest and best use of my time right now?” If the answer is “no,” then you might consider assigning it to someone else.

Second, at the end of each day, reflect back on how you used your time. Did you complete any activities that really should have been delegated to someone else? If you did, make a mental note to yourself to delegate any similar tasks that come up in the future.

Over time, if you notice that you keep doing activities that should be delegated, try to see if you notice any trends. Are your beliefs about delegation getting in the way? Does your team need further training? Is your sense of urgency excessive? Commit to systematically addressing those issues so that you can fully leverage your team’s strengths and optimize the use of your time.

III. Best Practices for Delegating

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to delegate and to whom, the next step is to actually delegate. Although many people might think it’s a pretty straightforward process, in my experience, many problems with delegated tasks can be traced back to a lack of clarity at this stage.

Twenty20

1. Explain Your Desired Outcome

When you’re delegating to someone, your goal is to describe the desired outcome of the project or task as clearly as possible.

You’ll also want to communicate any guidelines or parameters that the individual will need to keep in mind as he is doing the project. In most instances, you won’t tell the person exactly how to do it, but there actually might be some times when that would be appropriate. For example, in a crisis, you’ll probably be a lot more directive than you would be when things are business-as-usual.

There’s actually a pretty clear framework now for deciding how specific to be, situational leadership. You consider the employee’s experience with the task — people with less experience prefer more direction, regardless of their overall experience.

2. Explain How the Task Contributes to the Big Picture

While this step isn’t always necessary, I have found that it can be very helpful for making an assignment more meaningful for the employee. Most people want to feel that they are making a difference. However, for the average person who is several layers down in a big organization, the link between what they are doing and the success of the business or its impact on customers is often unclear. By taking a few minutes to explain how an activity or project is tied to the big picture, it can give employees a greater sense of pride, ownership, and engagement with their work.

3. Communicate the Level of Quality Required

Do you just require a rough draft? Or, does every item need to be double and triple-checked? While your first impulse might be to say that everything needs to be of the highest quality, being more realistic in this regard can provide your employee with valuable information that can help her manage her time.

For example, if you are dealing with a perfectionist who, left to her own devices, would spend hours creating the perfect presentation (down to the font and colors), but the presentation is not important enough to warrant that level of detail, it would be helpful to let her know that. Conversely, if you’re assigning a high-profile activity to a member of your team who isn’t always attentive to detail, you can increase the chances that she will deliver what you’re looking for by reinforcing your need for high quality.

4. Communicate Deadline and Milestones

While this might seem obvious, many delegators skip this. When it’s left out, leaders can end up irritated because their employee didn’t complete a task as quickly as they had hoped. Or, on the flip side, an employee may be frustrated because he stayed up late and worked all weekend on a task that the leader knew she wouldn’t get a chance to review for two weeks.

To avoid this, agree upon a timeline with the person to whom you are delegating. Agree upon a final deadline, along with check-in points by which certain milestones should be completed. Ideally, this process will be a collaborative one, in which your employee is able to give honest feedback about when she expects she can deliver it to you.

As you are agreeing on the timeline, make sure to budget time for feedback and revisions, to avoid receiving sub standard products at the last minute. You might also want to ask your employee about his workload in general, in case he needs assistance with prioritization that will help him manage his time in the best possible way.

As a final note: while it’s sometimes unavoidable, try to limit the number of tasks that require minimal turnaround. Nobody likes to work for a boss unrealistic expectations.

5. Review for Clarity

As a final step, make sure that everyone walks away with a clear understanding of the expectations. A simple way to do this would be to have your employee explain his understanding of the assignment. Ask if he has any questions, and if he foresees any obstacles in getting it done. Find out what he needs from you to get it done effectively. That way, you can anticipate any potential problems, and increase the chances of success.

The bottom line? When delegating, clarity is your friend. Be as clear as possible about the what, when, who, and why to give your employees the best chance of meeting your expectations.

IV. Follow Up on Delegated Tasks

The last phase of delegation is following up. This is critical because ultimately, you are the one who is accountable. Don’t be like those leaders who make the faulty assumption that once they’ve assigned the task, their part in the process is complete. If you choose not to check in, you could be playing Russian Roulette with your reputation.

Helloquence, Unsplash

The good news is, if you’ve followed the delegation steps outlined above, the check-in process should be pretty easy. You’ll already have agreed upon touch points that will enable you to see how everything is progressing. And, since everyone involved in a project will be expecting these check-ins, you’ll be able to decrease the odds that your employees will feel like you’re breathing down their necks.

During these check-ins, provide any needed course corrections, along with encouragement and positive feedback. Have an open mind, and try to be objective as you assess and critique the quality of the work. Remember — just because it’s different than how you would have done it, it doesn’t mean that it’s worse.

In addition, watch out for two common behaviors that can undermine your future delegation efforts: nitpicking and taking over. Nitpicking about every minuscule detail can train employees to believe that they’re never going to meet your expectations. This will cause them to stop putting in their best effort, since they know you’re going to rip it apart anyway.

Likewise, if you tend to jump in and take over, your employees learn that you’re either going to “save” them, or undo much of the work they’ve already put in. This behavior also has the unintended consequence of making employees feel less ownership over their output. And, if they feel they have less ownership, you’re probably going to get lower quality work.

Finally, once the assignment is completed, you might want to review lessons learned. This will help you to highlight takeaways that you would like your team member to remember the next time you delegate something to him or her. And, don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. There are few things as frustrating as a boss who pawns off your work as his or her own.

What to Do if the Work is Sub-Standard

In a perfect world, you would delegate an assignment, get a top-notch product back from your employee, then go along your merry way. Unfortunately, things aren’t always perfect.

So, what do you do if what they give back to you isn’t up to par?

Death to the Stock Photo

Your best response will depend on the root cause of the problem. Here are three common issues and how to address them:

1. Miscommunication

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there was a lack of clarity regarding your expectations. Whether it was a miscommunication, incorrect assumptions, lack of understanding, or forgetfulness, for some reason, the two of you were not on the same page.

In that case, review the desired outcome again, and ensure that your expectations are crystal clear. You might even want to document your agreed upon goals to further ensure clarity. For example, you could have your employee send you an email with the agreed upon details outlined, or you could add it as an agenda item for your next meeting to reinforce the timeline.

2. Skill Deficit

In other instances, you might receive a sub-standard product because your employee lacked the skills to deliver. Perhaps you overshot when giving a stretch assignment. Or, you might have presumed that he knew more than he did.

To address this issue, provide your employee with the coaching or training he needs so that he can better meet your expectations next time around. While it can be frustrating, the silver lining of this sort of scenario is that it enables you, as the boss, to gain a deeper understanding of your employee’s developmental opportunities or knowledge gaps. And, armed with this information, you can make better decisions about how to coach him, as well as what to delegate in the future.

3. Motivation

Let’s face it. Regardless of what you do, some people just aren’t motivated or engaged enough to do a good job. If that was the issue, you might want to find out why your employee wasn’t engaged in the task. Is she a poor fit for the position? Are there other extenuating personal issues that might have affected her performance? Getting to the bottom of this issue can help you to understand how best to proceed.

If it becomes an ongoing problem, you’ll need to use your available tools to hold her accountable. Whether you provide a warning, create a performance plan, or go through your organization’s disciplinary process, make sure to address the situation. Ignoring problems in the hope that they’ll go away on their own rarely works.

Finally, if it comes to it, you can encourage your employee to find a role that would be a better fit for him. Although many leaders are reluctant to terminate an employee, keep in mind that if someone has an attitude problem, it not only makes your life more difficult, it can also negatively affect the morale of your whole team.

Conclusion

Author and leadership guru John C. Maxwell wrote,

“If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”

If you are serious about maximizing your efficiency, influence, and impact, it’s critical to learn how to delegate effectively. Try out these tools and see the difference they can make in how things get done.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Patricia Thompson, PhD

Written by

Corporate psychologist writing about leadership, productivity, and being your best. Featured in HBR, Forbes, Fast Company. www.silverliningpsychology.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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