Keys to Effective Delegation

Effective delegation is key to organizational success.  However, it is frequently rendered ineffective, when it isn’t done abundantly enough or when missing a key step.

What is it?  

Delegation- Entrusting a task or responsibility to another person.  It is fairly simple.  However, notice that it does not specify that the person is someone that works for you or is subordinate to you on an organizational chart.

Why is it important to delegate?  What are the important purposes for delegation?  

I would argue that the most important purpose of delegation is to develop / stretch a person or group.  The continual improvement of an organization hinges upon the use of delegation as an organizational development tool.  

Delegation is key to not only the organization and the person to whom the work is delegated, but also the leader doing the delegating.  It is one of the most difficult skills for a new leader to master.

How could you develop a person or department with this tool?  The key is to continually delegate tasks or projects that stretch the person or group beyond their current comfort zone.  That means that you are looking for the “goldie locks” tasks or projects that are not routine for them, but does not stretch them to the point of failure.  Since organizational development is a process, you should be looking for those opportunities continually for your entire ecosystem.

What other important purposes does delegation serve?

  • Delegation allows for the separation of tasks within an organization.  
  • It allows you to do what you were hired to do or are best suited to do.  Meanwhile, it allows others to do the same.
  • Delegation allows you to do the important, but not necessarily urgent, tasks that you could or should be doing.  You should have plenty of time for planning, preparation, continual improvement, training, self development etc.  Delegate as much as possible until you can do these important tasks.
  • Delegation spreads out the workload to allow for balanced loading across the team.
  • Delegation allows others to engage in varied / more interesting work.  No one should have to do the same boring thing each day when there are tasks that could shake up their day to day.

Why don’t we delegate more if it is so important?

  • Organizational under-development like:
    • The delegate isn’t qualified to do this task or project.
    • It will be faster if I just do it.
    • I am the only person who knows how to do it.
  • Scarcity of resources reasons like:
    • The potential delegates don’t want more responsibility.
    • The potential delegates don’t work for me.
    • I don’t have time to show someone how to do it.
    • There’s no one to delegate to.
    • They already have too much to do.
  • Trust Reasons like:
    • They messed up last time, I am not going to risk that again.
    • I could do it better myself.
    • I don’t know if I could trust the delegate to do it.
    • What if they do it better than me?
    • Knowledge is power, this let’s some of my power slip away.
    • Will they still need me, if I delegate this?
    • The busier I appear to my chain of command, the more favorably I’ll be looked upon.  I’m not delegating anything!
  • Or simply, “I like doing this task.”  That is fine, so long as you can fulfill your highest and best purpose for the organization.  If not, you have to give up enough to allow it.

Overcoming the Barriers / Reasons not to Delegate More

Development Reasons

Getting to the point where the organization has developed appropriately around you can stretch not just the delegate but also the delegator.  It will be important for you to commit to the importance of it, so that you do not stop the progress when you become frustrated or worry about the extra time that it takes to train them and the extra time that it takes for someone doing something new to do unfamiliar tasks.  Persevere, it will be worth it.  This is so important.  Don’t stop because it is hard.

  Avoid the snow plow…  If you do not do something, i.e. train someone to do a new task, develop the people around you…  the responsibility will remain on you / the go to people in your ecosystem and it will eventually overwhelm you.  Best to be proactive, bite the bullet and get the development projects done ASAP.

Scarcity of Resources Reasons

When people, time, money etc. are scarce, that is the time to bring our greatest creativity to the forefront.  Look for new ways to do things.  Look for people that might not normally come to mind when you think of delegation.  Other departments, management or colleagues can frequently help out in unexpected ways.

Trust Reasons

It is completely logical not to delegate to someone that can’t be trusted to do it consistently with excellence.  

In those instances, it may be time to ask yourself why this person is still on your team.  You may assess their overall value to the organization and ensure that they are still worthy of a spot. Every member of your team must be someone that you can trust.

For all other circumstances, it is time to push through.  Too often, we let fear hold us back, whether that came from bad experiences in the past or fear of the unknown. Push through, give it a try.  You can stick closer to the things that scare you, without micromanaging, by using some of the techniques below.

Those around you tend to “rise to” or “drop to” your expectations.  That has been a phenomena documented for centuries, often called the “Pygmalion Effect”.  Be careful to always keep your expectations high lest you cause your own problems when your team members drop to your low expectations. 

What can be delegated?  

  • You can delegate nearly anything.  
  • Delegate for organizational development.  Look for tasks and projects that can stretch those around you.
  • Delegate to allow you to fulfill your highest and best use for the organization; give yourself time to think, strategize, and recharge.  Challenge yourself.  We frequently think that I cannot delegate:
    • Signing documents- Except, assistants have been using rubber stamps to do this for years.
    • Employee Development- Except, we have been hiring mentors, coaches and sending employees to training for years.
    • Developing Relationships- Except, we hire sales professionals all the time to do just that with our customers.
  • Consider delegating anything that someone else does when you are not in the office.
  • It is most powerful to free up your time to delegate routine tasks.  Those are the things that, because of their recurring nature, take up the most time.

What are the steps of effective delegation?

Step 1) As Stephen Covey said, you must “begin with the end in mind”.  It is important for you to think through what wild success looks like before you try to communicate to the delegate.

When considering who the task or project should go to?  

  • Base it upon the skill levels of potential delegates.  Delegate freely to those that have performed well on the same or similar items.  However, you should also consider delegating to people that will be stretched by this opportunity to continue their development.  
  • Spread the Wealth; Do not get in a “rut” with a “go to” employee or department.  Trust issues develop when you stop working to develop broadly across the organization and you risk holding back organizational development.
  • Anytime that you delegate…  Expect the absolute best of delegate to take advantage of a positive Pygmalion Effect.
  • Ask yourself, “Who is interested in this part of the business / activity?”  They may be the most motivated to hit your high expectations for this project.

Step 2) Clearly define the task for your delegate.  

Use the SMART format: Specific, Measurable, Achievable (for them), Relevant (to them) and Time Bound (with a date, and time, where it is important).

I had a colleague that delegated the purchase of two signs to the company’s purchasing department.  He asked them for one small conference room sign and one large conference room sign.  When he received them, as he asked for…  one sign was small and said “Conference Room” and one sign was large and read “Conference Room”.  Unfortunately, what he wanted were two signs…  one which read “Small Conference Room” and the second which read “Large Conference Room”.  While it was a low stakes mistake and gave us all a laugh, it is a lesson for all of us.  It is up to the delegator to be crystal clear in their description of wild success.

Delegate, whenever possible, the outcome, but not the step by step process to generate the outcome.  Let them learn and use their ingenuity to hit the target.  They will frequently exceed your wildest expectations.  You hired exceptional people, so let them show their intelligence, innovation and creativity.


  • Why must this be done?
  • Who is this important to?
  • The big picture of why this is important and how it fits into the goals of the organization.

Many projects have been undone when a delegate hits a roadblock along the way, and takes a path around it…  only to find out that the detour didn’t fit the value for the organization or the other way around.

Clearly define the timeframe within which it must be done including a due date and a due time, if it is relevant.  Be careful in delegating without a time attached.  Many project managers have been undone by setting a date alone.  That date may mean first thing to you, but it might mean the end of the workday or midnight to the delegate.

Clearly outline the authority that they have with this task:

  • Level One:  The authority to Recommend.  “Come back to me with a plan regarding how that you will accomplish the project goals.”
  • Level Two:  The authority to Inform and Initiate.  “Go ahead and get started, but review your plan with me ASAP.”
  • Level Three:  The authority to Act.  “The next time that you and I speak about this it should be complete.”

Step 3)   Check for understanding

Ask them to paraphrase (not parrot) the desired outcome back to you in their own words.  Be aware:  You cannot hold someone accountable if you have not set crystal clear expectations.  In this step, you are checking to ensure that you did your part.

Step 4)  Ask, “what else do you need from me in order to accomplish this successfully?”

I don’t know what they might ask for:  budget, training, cooperation, relief on other priorities etc.  However, this is the time to fulfill or renegotiate their needs.

Step 5)  Set Checkpoints (Mostly, for larger tasks, projects or goals)

Identify checkpoints where you will meet with the delegate to check progress and offer guidance.  You should schedule the check-ins frequently at first, and taper them off as you see mastery and a trajectory that will hit the objective

Step 6)  Lessons Learned

What went well?  Therefore, we will be sure to do it again, communicate it as a best practice to others, and/or enter it into the procedure.

What did not go well?  Therefore, we would take a different route the next time and communicate it as a pitfall.

This step is a critical part of continual improvement and your commitment to learning.  Do not be tempted to skip it.

Step 7)  Say thank you!  And praise, praise, praise, praise, praise, praise…  

Dr. Marciel Losada found that in world class organizations, the positive to negative interactions ratio between management and employees was 6 to 1 or higher  This is your opportunity to push toward that optimal ratio.

Summary: 7 Steps of Effective Delegation

  • Prepare beforehand
  • Clearly define the task to be completed (Be SMART).
  • Ask the person to whom you are delegating to paraphrase all key points of the task back to you
  • Ask, “What else do you need in order to get this done?”
  • Identify Checkpoints
  • Hold a debriefing session
  • Praise, praise, praise, praise, praise, praise

Now…  Go out there and start delegating more projects more effectively today!  

2 thoughts on “Keys to Effective Delegation

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