The art of delegation

How often have you asked a staff person or a volunteer to do something for your organization, only to be frustrated later that the task wasn’t done? Have you considered how many variables there are in this seemingly simple equation? Remember the old saying, “A message sent is not always a message received; a message received is not always a message understood; a message understood is not always a message acted on.”

The reason(s) that your delegations are not universally successful are probably more complicated than you imagine–and you are likely more culpable in the failure of the process than you’d like to think.

Seasoned leaders know that recognizing and defining an assignment, determining how it would best be accomplished, and effectively transferring responsibility for it is so much more than simply telling people to do something.

Effective delegation involves a thoughtful balance of factors involving creativity, control, context, and credit. Here are a few considerations.

1. Even menial work has context. All of us want to do work that matters, and if it isn’t readily obvious how one task contributes to an overall goal, take the time to help your team appreciate how even administrative or mundane activity supports your mission. Even a small task should relate in some fashion to your strategic goals (and if it doesn’t, why is anyone spending time on it?).

2. Is this an ask, or a tell? Think about the times when you felt uncomfortable on the receiving end of delegation done poorly. We all know there is a world of difference between “Do this by 5 p.m.” and “Do you have time today to take this on?” If the situation offers no flexibility, you can still acknowledge the other person’s role: “I need you to set aside what you’re working on and do this instead.”

3. Notice your own motives. Are you cherry-picking the work you enjoy and offloading the work that you don’t—and justifying it because of your title? Are you delegating the right tasks? Are you thoughtfully delegating the work you’re not as good at to someone who is more capable? If you’re delegating something because “it is not worth your time,” then can you honestly say that you’re using your time in the most effective way as a result?

4. Balancing creativity is being clear up front on how much flexibility a person has to do something in their own way; conversely, make sure it is understood how much control you expect to have on both the process and the result. If you’ve consistently been delegating tasks with a high degree of control to a person, figure out how to allow projects now and then that the person can truly “own.”  

5. Ah, the proverbial “…other duties as assigned.” We’ve all been given things to do that didn’t match what we believe our role is; the important point is to acknowledge this fact up front and to find ways, going forward, to also delegate work that supports the person’s longer-range learning goals. Tiresome and routine tasks have to get done, to be sure, but if that’s all you ever assign to people, small wonder that momentum and pride trickle down to nothing.

6. Is the person permitted or expected to delegate onward? If your intention is “It’s important to me that you to do this task yourself,” then say so. If you’re actually saying, “Please just see that this gets done,” that is a different message. An employee who is already busy and potentially missing other deadlines can only feel bad about yet another assignment being piled on if this important distinction isn’t clear. Unwritten rules of the road in your organizational culture may also come into play here. Is the employee in a position to delegate to others successfully? If not, you’re setting him or her up to fail. You could save a lot of conflict later with a five-minute meeting: “This project will require several people in various roles, and I’ve asked Manuel to head it up.”

7. Are resources in place? Time, skills, technology, and connections all play a part on whether something gets done. See if there are barriers that you can break down: ”I’ll make an email introduction right now between you and Bridget, who has the information you’ll need to get this done.”

8. Forge an agreement. People are more likely to meet deadlines that they helped set. Meanwhile, some employees will accept unrealistic deadlines (and then fail) because they’re afraid to speak up. Give them a chance: “I’d like to see this done before Monday’s meeting—is that doable?”

9. Check in—appropriately. If you’re tempted to hover, there’s something wrong with the delegation process. Notice when you have trouble letting go of something. Ideally, there is at least one checkpoint between the assignment at the front end and the deadline itself. “How can I help you complete this?” is going to get everyone a lot further than “Why isn’t this done yet?”

10. Give prompt feedback. If a deadline is met but you take another week or two to acknowledge the work, you’ve exposed the unfortunate fact that you didn’t actually care whether the work got done—you just needed it off your desk. Whatever urgency you expressed at the onset should match the urgency with which the project is ultimately completed or delivered. Giving prompt feedback or review is critical. Allow time for revision or correction.

Remember that delegation is not just about getting drudgery done. Along the way, don’t forget to delegate fun assignments, too. It’s not only good for morale, but it sets up your ability to delegate the inevitable less-desirable tasks more successfully when the time comes.

1 Comment

  1. David Taylor
    February 01, 2018

    Great summary of delegation steps. I would also add allowing the person to think for themselves about the way its to be done. If we impress on them that ‘this is the way i’ve always done it and it’s the bast way’ then there will be no buy in or independent thought. People tend to buy in to what they themselves believe they have decided, so even if they come up with the same way that you have done it, give them credit for thinking it up and let them get on with it!

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