There are many reasons you might drag your feet on delegation: Your team is overworked already—the last thing they need is more to do. It will turn out better if you do it yourself. It will take longer to explain to someone else than to do it. You won’t know the best way to complete the project until you’re in the middle of it, so how can you pass it on?
We’re not going to tell you that delegation is easy. And indeed, there are times when delegating your work is not the right thing to do. When you assess your tasks, you must learn to tease out the work only you can do from the work that others could do.
How delegation benefits individuals and companies
Delegation skills have both short-term and long-term benefits for individuals and their companies.
How effective delegation benefits managers:
- You can focus on bigger-picture work that will move your career forward.
- You’ll develop your employees’ skills and motivate them with new and interesting work.
- You’ll impress leadership. They’ll notice that you’re using your time for high-value work and holding your team accountable.
How effective delegation benefits individual contributors:
- With the right support, individuals can follow their interests and develop as professionals.
- With increasing responsibilities, they can really see how their work contributes to the organization’s and team’s success.
- They won’t have to deal with an overworked, over-stressed manager who hoards information.
How effective delegation benefits companies:
- Research by Gallup found that when leaders are good delegators, their companies grow faster and make more money than others.
- Employee satisfaction and retention grow when individuals know they are trusted, and when they have the opportunity to learn new skills.
- A focus on delegation is more likely to root out the tasks that can actually be dropped altogether, or “delegated to the floor.”
With that established, let’s look at some common delegation mistakes and how to correct them.
Delegation mistake #1: You delegate the same way to each employee
Managers may believe that being a fair boss means treating all their employees the same. The instinct is good, but because people’s needs and personalities differ, a single approach can actually advantage some employees over others.
Say, for example, that you tend to improvise rather than plan. You don’t give employees a lot of details when delegating, thinking they’ll have more fun with the project if they can bring their own creative approach and figure it out as they go. (You would.) If Employee A also enjoys improvising and flexible expectations, they might thrive with this project. But if Employee B is a person who prefers clear expectations and more structure, they might really struggle. Even if both employees have the exact same skills and experience, they likely won’t have the same level of success in this situation.
So, you treated the employees the same, but was it fair? If you want to give each employee an equal chance at success, take their personalities, needs, and work styles into account when delegating. What your employee requires when taking on a new responsibility might be different from what you would need in their situation.
While you are flexing your delegation style to be more effective with each individual, also think about the content of what you’re delegating. Are you giving the right jobs to the right people? Practice evaluating people for various responsibilities based on their competencies and interests. The person who comes to mind first for a particular task isn’t the only option. Think about the project. Does it involve opportunities to collaborate? Is there a competitive aspect to it? Does it provide stable, predictable work over a long period? Different people value each of these things. When possible, take the time to pair people with the most fitting responsibilities.
Delegation mistake #2: You don’t provide enough structure or clarity
For every project that is delegated well, there must be a hundred that are handed off without clear expectations, guidelines, and resources. Because the project is off track from the start, the process will be unpleasant for all parties and the results less successful. The manager thinks, See, this is why I don’t delegate; the employee feels resentful.
“Most people know that work needs to get done, but they can’t properly articulate what the end result should look like, so it’s just easier to do it themselves.”
Besides the inability to articulate the work, there are many other reasons delegated projects lack clarity:
- The delegator has not taken the time to think it through.
- The delegator can’t envision the end product until the project is underway.
- The delegator is someone who works without a lot of structure, but the employee requires structure to work successfully.
- No deadlines or milestones have been set.
- The employee doesn’t have access to the right tools.
- The employee doesn’t know how to get their questions answered.
It’s usually better to over-communicate than under-communicate when delegating. These steps can help you add structure and clarity to delegation situations:
- Take time on your own to define the parameters of the project. Write up a project brief, even if in draft form. You can discuss the specifics with your employee later, but they’ll likely appreciate having some concrete parameters to start with.
- Analyze your options before assigning a task. Who is the best person or team to take it on? When is the best time to assign it?
- Don’t be in a rush when passing the work to your employee. Let them know there’s time for them to ask questions.
- Consider how you’ll sell the project to get your employee excited about it. Your pitch should take the employee’s style into account (see DiSC customer styles).
- Be specific about what success looks like. If you have a clear vision of the end product, make sure you communicate that. If the end result is more open-ended, discuss with the employee how and when you’ll need to sign off on the direction they choose.
- Set deadlines and milestones. It may feel harsh while you’re doing it, but people would rather know your expectations.
- Tell them what the consequences are if they don’t hit the milestones. They may not have the big picture you do of how this project fits with other efforts in the company. Giving them a realistic view of deadlines and consequences helps them feel like a collaborator that shares responsibility.
- After discussing the project with the employee, ask them to articulate how they understand their responsibilities. Are you on the same page?
- Make sure your discussion covers these topics: Will the employee need additional training to be successful, and if so, how will that happen? Are there tools or resources they will need access to (project management spaces, shared documents, software, etc.)? How often will you check in about progress? What should they do if they have questions?
Delegation mistake #3: You have trouble giving up control
When you delegate responsibilities, you are often still accountable for the project’s success. So, it is understandable that many people have trouble letting go of tasks they’ve delegated. But if you want what’s best for your company and your own career, you’re better off learning delegation skills.
“Perfectionism detracts from your leadership potential. While you may think trying to do more positions you as a rockstar, a lack of delegation actually signals to senior management that you’re not ready for more responsibility.”
If you struggle to relinquish control of delegated duties, this may be expressed through
- hoarding knowledge or information
- not giving others authority to independently fulfill responsibilities
- not empowering others to find creative solutions
- failing to listen to the concerns and ideas of employees
When you micromanage a task you’ve delegated, you’re communicating to the employee that you don’t trust them. If the employee depends on the fact that you’ll always be looking over their shoulder, you’re denying them an opportunity for real responsibility.
One of the biggest mindset shifts that can help overly-controlling delegators is to focus on outcomes, not processes. People may have different ways to get to the same endpoint. As long as their approach doesn’t cost significantly more money or time, keep an open mind. Realize that the way you would do something is rarely the only way for it to be done. Be open to new solutions, even if they’re different from what you might have done. Sometimes great things will happen if your employees can experiment, be spontaneous, or propose a new solution. Focus on the results; leave the details to them.
Delegation mistake #4: You give up too much control
Effective delegation is often more of a collaboration than a hand-off.
With some situations or employees, you’ll be able to delegate a task and never give it another thought, but that is not usually the case. Perhaps you are still the person ultimately accountable. Perhaps the employee needs more information or external motivation.
Depending on your personality type, it may be uncomfortable for you to pressure people. Try to remind yourself that holding people accountable for doing their work is not a burden you’re placing on them. (To the contrary, it’s often a gift.)
Much of the discomfort can be alleviated by setting clear expectations from the start. The initial meeting or meetings when you’re passing the project along are crucial to your ongoing relationship with the employee around the project. If the two of you had an honest conversation and agreed to the scope and milestones, it’s a lot easier to check in and say, “This isn’t what we talked about — how can we get back on track?” If the project started in a nebulous place and you just hoped they would do it like you wanted, it’s unpleasant to say, “Hey why isn’t this done?” or “Do this a different way.”
Some managers struggle to address problems head-on when they see them developing. They put the blinders on and hope things will resolve themselves.
If you as a manager are not a naturally self-assured person, and the employee you’re delegating to is self-assured, you may ascribe more competence to them than is actually the case.
If you are a naturally empathetic person, you may accept explanations for poor performance so often that nothing ends up getting done. Be aware of your managerial tendencies and work within your strengths and challenges.
Some tasks or projects require a sense of urgency, and it might be up to you to instill that in your employee. Pressure can be positive and energizing.
If your priority—whether conscious or unconscious—is not to “be the bad guy,” you may end up setting less ambitious goals for your employees. In doing so, you’re denying them growth opportunities and stifling the potential of your team. Set high standards. Hold people accountable, and create an environment where they hold each other accountable.
Delegation mistake #5: You don’t follow up
Your employees may need positive encouragement, or just a vibe check to make sure they’re headed in the right direction. They may need reminders of deadlines or expectations. There are people who won’t initiate asking clarifying questions unless you open space for it. Ongoing communication is key.
There should be regular check-ins about the delegated work without micromanaging. Make yourself available.
Look for opportunities to check in about how you’re doing as a manager. Ask “Where am I too involved?” and “Where do you need me to get more involved?” to ensure that team members feel empowered and supported. Once a project is complete, assess how the delegation went with questions like “Did I set you up for success?” and “How can I make your job easier next time?”
To put it simply, “trust but verify.”
DiSC and delegating
What are your natural strengths and challenges when it comes to delegating? Everything DiSC Management gives you the insight to understand your natural approach to directing and delegating. This knowledge will help you adjust your approach for each employee and delegation situation.
With practice, you’ll gain confidence in knowing when to delegate, how to get the right jobs to the right people, and how to give your employees autonomy, empowering them to succeed.