One of my favorite Olympic sports to watch is track relay. The runners make blindly reaching for a baton at 20 mph while staying in their lanes look incredibly easy. But in truth, what they’re doing is extremely difficult. And it’s a lot like delegating effectively.
Delegating sounds easy—and others who can do it well make it look easy—but passing the baton effectively requires a lot of trust, communication, and coordination. Still, if you learn how to delegate—and you do it well—everyone on your team wins.
Table of Contents:
- Why Is It Important to Delegate?
- Why Managers Fail to Delegate
- How to Determine When Delegating is Appropriate
- How to Delegate Tasks Effectively
Why Is It Important to Delegate?
As a leader, delegating is important because you can’t—and shouldn’t—do everything yourself. Delegating empowers your team, builds trust, and assists with professional development. And for leaders, it helps you learn how to identify who is best suited to tackle tasks or projects.
Of course, delegating tasks can lighten your workload, but according to Dr. Scott Williams, professor of management at Wright State University, delegating does much more than just get stuff off your plate.
For one, the people who work for you will be able to develop new skills and gain knowledge, which prepares them for more responsibility in the future.
“Delegation can also be a clear sign that you respect your subordinates’ abilities and that you trust their discretion,” Williams writes. “Employees who feel that they are trusted and respected tend to have a higher level of commitment to their work, their organization, and, especially, their managers.”
Why Managers Fail to Delegate
While the benefits of delegating are obvious and plentiful, many managers still fail to delegate effectively. The reality is that there are several myths and misconceptions about delegating that can make some leaders wary of handing off work to others.
They think delegating is just passing off work to someone else
“Managers often mistake delegation for passing off work,” writes Harvey Mackay, founder of MackayMitchell Envelope Co. “So they don’t do it, and they wind up wasting their time as well as the company’s time and resources.”
Delegation can be a chance to make workloads more manageable, but more than that, it can provide really valuable teaching opportunities for your employees, Mackay notes.
Delegation is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a strong leader.
They think they can do it better
One study found that two psychological processes make people more reluctant to delegate work:
- the self-enhancement effect, which is a manager’s tendency to evaluate a work product more highly the more involved he/she is in its production
- the faith in supervision effect, which is when people have a tendency to think work performed under the control of a supervisor is better than work performed without as much supervision
Watch for those biases in your work. They could be a sign that you need to focus on building more trust within your team.
They’re nervous about letting go
Letting go can be challenging, but accepting that you can’t do everything yourself is important.
“Giving up being ‘the go-to expert’ takes tremendous confidence and perspective even in the healthiest environments,” says Carol Walker, president of Prepared to Lead—a consulting firm that focuses on developing young leaders.
Remind yourself that your team wants to do good work and be successful just like you do. If your employees succeed, you succeed.
“I’ve learned that people will seldom let you down if they understand that your destiny is in their hands—and vice versa,” says Mackay.
They’re worried delegating will take longer than just doing the work
Another common barrier to delegation is that it can take longer to teach someone else how to do a task than to just do it yourself.
And while that might be true the first time you delegate the task, over time, the amount of time you have to dedicate to that task decreases because you won’t have to be involved with it at all.
Imagine that it will take you eight hours to walk someone through a task you have to complete every week. Typically, it takes you an hour to complete the task.
Once eight weeks have passed after you’ve trained someone else to do the task for you, you’ll have recouped the time you spent on training and now have an extra hour each week.
With that extra hour, you can focus on more important work, such as strategy, coaching, or development—the things leaders are supposed to do.
How to Determine When Delegating is Appropriate
Another common barrier to delegation is that leaders aren’t sure which tasks they should and shouldn’t be delegating. In every manager’s workload—particularly new managers—there are likely tasks that you should do and tasks that you should delegate.
Career and business strategist Jenny Blake recommends conducting an audit of your tasks using the rules below to find out which of your tasks should be delegated:
- Tiny: Tiny tasks are little things that only take a small amount of time to complete but add up over time. These might be things an assistant could do: scheduling meetings, booking flights for business trips, or deleting spam/marketing emails from your inbox.
- Tedious: Tedious tasks are mindless tasks, such as copying and pasting lead information from your marketing automation tool to your CRM. Tedious tasks require little skill and can be easily delegated.
- Time-consuming: Time-consuming tasks are opportunities to break work into smaller chunks and delegate portions of the work to others. If you perform a task regularly that takes a lot of time, look for opportunities to hand off segments of that task to others.
- Teachable: Do you have tasks on your plate that you could easily teach someone else to complete? If a task is entirely teachable—if it does not require expertise that only you can provide—it’s a worthwhile candidate for delegation.
- Terrible at: Maybe you have no design skills, so it takes you six times as long to create graphics for your blog posts as it would a professional designer. It’s better to delegate that task to someone who’s more equipped to do the work quickly and well.
- Time-sensitive: Maybe it would be better if you handled all of the tasks belonging to a time-sensitive project, but if you won’t have time to complete it doing it all on your own, it’s time to find ways to delegate parts of that task to other members of your team.
Additionally, you may need to consider delegating tasks you love doing but are no longer part of your job.
If you recently moved into a leadership role, you may have pet projects from your days as an individual contributor, but if it’s now someone else’s job to complete those tasks, it’s time to delegate and teach that person how to do it for you.
How to Delegate Tasks Effectively
Here are a few tips to help you delegate effectively so that your team shares the workload and makes progress that benefits everyone.
1. Choose the right person for the job
Part of being a good leader is understanding your employees’ strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. If you need to delegate a task that is going to require a lot of collaboration to complete, don’t delegate it to someone who very strongly prefers working alone. Delegate it to someone who prefers collaborating.
If you conducted the audit recommended in the section above, you may have a list of tasks you’re looking to delegate. You may want to consider sitting down with your team, going through the list, and letting people self-select the tasks they’re most interested in taking over.
Letting people choose the tasks they’re delegated is another way to build trust with and inspire engagement among your team.
2. Explain why you’re delegating
If you’re delegating a task to someone out of the blue, it really helps when you provide context for why you’re giving them that responsibility.
“When you select people to delegate to, tell them why you chose them specifically and how you hope to see this help them grow,” says Alex Cavoulacos, founder of The Muse. “Help them see each delegated task as an opportunity to take on more responsibilities or grow new skills.”
3. Provide the right instructions
Every good delegator provides basic and important information without micromanaging. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests that you delegate results rather than methods:
“For example, say, ‘Here’s what we are doing. Here’s what we’re after. I want you to get the sale,’ instead of ‘Follow up on those leads,” Covey says.
Tell employees your goals or the milestones you hope to hit and let them tackle the problem in their own way. Don’t look for perfection or micromanage; someone else might complete a task differently than you would. As long as you get the result you’re looking for, that’s okay.
4. Provide resources and training
You have to make sure the person tasked with a job or project has the tools and resources they need to be successful.
“A good training rule of thumb is ‘I do, we do, you do’ (i.e. watch me do this, then let’s do it together, now you try),” says Cavoulacos.
Make sure that when you delegate a task, the person has the tools and skills they need to complete the task—or provide a way for them to work on those skills.
For example, if you ask someone to use a specific tool they’ve never used before to complete a task, make sure there’s a plan for them to become familiar with the tool first.
5. Delegate responsibility *and* authority
You’ve probably been in a situation where you were tasked with something but didn’t feel fully empowered to make decisions. As a result, the work stalls, you end up having to ask for help, and the task takes more time from both the employee and the manager.
“Managers who fail to delegate responsibility in addition to specific tasks eventually find themselves reporting to their subordinates and doing some of the work, rather than vice versa,” writes Martin Zwilling, founder and CEO of Startup Professionals.
Foster an environment and culture where people feel they’re able to make decisions, ask questions, and take the necessary steps to complete the work.
6. Check the work and provide feedback
There’s nothing worse than a manager who delegates something to an employee and then blames the employee when something goes wrong. Don’t be that manager.
Check the work you delegated to your employees when it’s complete, make sure they did it correctly, and give them any feedback needed to improve when handling the task going forward.
7. Say thank you
When someone completes a task or project you delegated, show genuine appreciation and point out specific things they did right or well.
When you make a note of those specifics, you’re giving people a roadmap for what they should continue to do to be successful.
“This is the simplest step but one of the hardest for many people to learn,” Zwilling says. “It will inspire loyalty, provide real satisfaction for work done, and become the basis for mentoring and performance reviews.”
The Benefits of Learning to Delegate
If you delegate well, you can increase trust and commitment with your employees, improve productivity, and make sure the right people are performing the tasks that best suit them.
So don’t be afraid to pass the baton. It might take some practice to become a great delegator, but if you work at it, you’ll all go further.
Originally published in March 2017, this post has been updated to provide more information about how to determine which tasks should be delegated and to add a few more delegating tips.
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