How to Delegate Effectively

How to Delegate Effectively

The secret of success is not in doing your own work, but in recognizing the right person to do it. Learn how to delegate effectively.

One of the most crucial and challenging tasks for managers and supervisors is to apportion work among their subordinates. Many managers and supervisors complain that they have too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Unchecked, this feeling leads to stress and ineffectiveness. In many cases, leaders could greatly reduce their stress by practicing a critical management skill – delegation.

Not knowing how to delegate effectively has been the downfall of many leaders – from top-notch managers to first-line supervisors. Conversely, mastering the art of delegation makes you a professional manager. Delegation is an effective means of developing your employees. And it’s also key to organizational prosperity, also because it can strongly motivate your staff.

What is Delegation?

Delegation is the assignment of authority to another person to carry out the specific job-related activities. It allows a subordinate to make managerial decisions. This means that decision-making authority usually shifts down one organizational level.

Successful businesses also encourage non-managers to master the art of delegation. Historically, delegation has been a vertical process. This means that managers delegated to subordinates in a clearly defined hierarchical structure. Today’s successful businesses are emphasizing both horizontal and vertical delegation. This is because of the growing emphasis on teamwork. Knowing how to delegate effectively to others outside your direct supervision is critical to team success.

Whether vertical or horizontal, delegation must be accompanied by effective coaching. Delegation will not be effective unless employees have the skills needed to get the job done. Managers, supervisors and coaches are responsible for developing them.  Equally important for effective delegation are good communication and trust between delegator and delegatee.

What Delegation Is Not

Delegation is not participation. In participative decision making, there is a sharing of authority. In delegation, subordinates make decisions on their own. Effective delegation shifts authority to someone else.

Delegation is not task assignment. Task assignment is simply assigning work to an individual within the duties and responsibilities of his position. Delegation, on the other hand, involves the manager giving someone the responsibility and authority to do something that is normally part of the manager’s job.

Delegation is not ‘dumping’. Ensure that employees don’t feel that you are pushing unpleasant assignments on them. If you don’t know how to delegate effectively and smartly, employees will feel put upon. Eventually, they will resent ‘doing my boss’s work for them’.

Delegation is not abdication. You are still ultimately accountable. That’s why it is important for you to establish appropriate controls and checkpoints to monitor progress. When managers give delegatees the appropriate authority to act, they also need to make clear their expectations, including any boundaries and criteria. However, you should avoid prescribing exactly how the assignment should be completed.

Elements of Delegation

Delegation involves three important concepts and practices: responsibility, authority, and accountability. When you delegate, you share responsibility and authority with others and you hold them accountable for their performance. The ultimate accountability, however, still lies with the manager. To know how to delegate effectively, you need to clearly understand that:

  • Responsibility refers to the assignment itself and the intended results. That means setting clear expectations. It also means that, as said above, you should avoid prescribing how the assignment should be completed.
  • Authority refers to the appropriate power given to the individual or group including the right to act and make decisions. It is very important to communicate boundaries and criteria such as budgetary considerations.
  • Accountability refers to the fact that the delegatee must ‘answer’ for their actions and decisions along with the rewards or penalties that accompany those actions or decisions.

Benefits of Delegation

Delegation, when well-implemented, has several advantages for both the delegator and the delegatee, but also the organization.

Benefits to the Manager / Supervisor

  • Makes your job easier and more exciting
  • Reduces stress and makes you look good
  • Frees you to do what you should be doing
  • Develops trust and rapport with your employees
  • Grooms your successor so that you can move on to bigger and better things. Often managers and supervisors derail their own advancement by not having someone ready to take their place.

Benefits to the employee

  • Provides professional growth opportunities
  • Develops their professional knowledge and skills
  • Elevates their self-image and ultimately self-esteem
  • Enhances their confidence and value to the organization
  • Brings them personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement

Benefits for the organization

  • Saves money and other resources
  • Promotes teamwork
  • Brings about professionalism
  • Gives employees opportunities to be involved with decision making, which leads to higher commitment and increased morale
  • Increases productivity and efficiency

How Well Do You Delegate?

The following exercise will help you identify your strengths and determine where improvement would be beneficial. Note down the number that best describes you (5 is the highest and 1 is the lowest). Then add them up to your overall score.

  1. Each of my subordinates knows what I expect of them. 5 4 3 2 1
  2. I involve employees in goal-setting, problem-solving and productivity-improvement activities. 5 4 3 2 1
  3. I place my personal emphasis on planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling rather than on doing tasks others could do. 5 4 3 2 1
  4. When assigning tasks, I select the assignee thoughtfully. 5 4 3 2 1
  5. If a problem occurs on a project I have delegated, I give the employee a reasonable chance to work it out for themselves. 5 4 3 2 1
  6. When I delegate work to employees, I brief them fully on the details of the assignment. 5 4 3 2 1
  7. I see delegation as one way to help employees develop their knowledge, skills and expertise. 5 4 3 2 1
  8. When I delegate a project, I make sure that everyone involved knows who is in charge. 5 4 3 2 1
  9. When delegating a task, I balance authority with need and experience. 5 4 3 2 1
  10. I hold my employees responsible for results. 5 4 3 2 1


  • 41-50: You are on target.
  • 31-40: Getting by, but you could improve.
  • 30 or less:  You need to change your delegation habits immediately.

Barriers to Delegation

Exhaustive research proves that the biggest barrier to delegation is you, the manager. Even when employees resist, the ultimate responsibility for that resistance often rests with their bosses.

Manager’s Excuses – And Their Real Reasons

When managers are asked why they don’t delegate more, they often give the following excuses :

  • It takes too long to explain.
  • My employees resist responsibility.
  • It is easier and quicker to do this myself.
  • My employees lack experience and competence.
  • If you want it done right, you better do it yourself.
  • No one on my staff is quite capable of doing the work.
  • My employees won’t like me if I expect too much of them.
  • I can do the work in my department better than anyone else.
  • My people are already overworked. I can’t offload anything on them.

Although managers/supervisors offer the above excuses, the real reasons may be discovered in the following list:

  • What if the other person messes up the task? I am still ultimately accountable.
  • If someone else can do my job, maybe I won’t be needed anymore.
  • I am the manager – I am supposed to have full control over everything.
  • I’m comfortable doing the job I’ve been doing for a long time. If I give that up, then I have to concentrate on new responsibilities I am not comfortable with.

Be honest with yourself. What are the real reasons you don’t delegate as much as you should?

Employee Resistance

Sometimes employees resist or fail to accept responsibility for some of the following reasons:

  • Delegatees may feel that the task is being imposed on them.
  • They may not have the skills, knowledge or ability to do the job.
  • Lack of reward or recognition in the past for a job well done.
  • They may fear criticism from the manager if they don’t do things exactly as expected.

Study this list, and think of some other reasons. Then, ask yourself if you have in any way contributed to employee resistance.

Symptoms of Poor Delegation

There are many symptoms of poor delegation. They can be seen in the working habits of the manager, the attitude of the employees, and the overall productivity of the organization. Have a look at the following list of symptoms that may be visible in your department/organization:

  • Deadlines are frequently missed
  • Some employees are much busier than others
  • Competent employees feel frustrated and bored
  • Employees are assigned tasks without proper training
  • Employees are unsure of their authority and responsibility
  • Managers are usually too busy to talk to employees
  • Employees’ suggestions are often neglected and overlooked
  • Managers themselves does not meet deadlines
  • Employees frequently request transfers to other departments
  • Managers never have time to visit the employees’ work stations
  • Communication flow is very slow, incomplete and often too late
  • Changes in plans and objectives are not passed on to employees
  • Managers sometimes intervene in the task without informing subordinates
  • The department/organization is plagued by slow decision making
  • Managers insist that all incoming/outgoing mail must first pass through them
  • Managers often take office work home, may postpone/cancel vacations because of workload

If you have checked even just one or two of the above statements, you should look very carefully at your delegation practices – and emphatically ask yourself why these conditions exist in your department/organization.

What to Delegate – And to Whom

The very first step in deciding to delegate a task is to think about what should – and should not – be delegated in the first place. Distinguishing the first kind from the other is an important part of knowing how to delegate effectively.

Do delegate:

  • Minor day-to-day decisions.
  • Minor staffing tasks such as scheduling, shift changes etc.
  • Anything your employees are expected to do when you are not there.
  • Jobs that can develop employees in other areas for potential promotion
  • Answering routine questions. Make the employees think for themselves.
  • Routine clerical duties (e.g. filing, counting, sorting, routine reports).

Don’t delegate:

  • Morale and off-the-job problems.
  • Jobs no one else in the department is truly qualified to do.
  • Personnel issues such as hiring, firing, or disciplinary matters.
  • Assignments from your own boss that you’re expected to do personally.
  • Emergency or short-deadline tasks when there is truly no time to explain.

After you’ve decided to delegate, your next step is to select the appropriate delegatee. Think about the delegatee’s personality as well as their skills. This is an important consideration when presenting the assignment to the chosen person. Some people may want and need a great deal of detail and explanation. Others will respond better to a simple statement of expectations and guidelines, then want to be left alone.

How to Delegate Effectively

Preparation Steps

  1. Determine what you are going to delegate, and what is required for it.
  2. Set out your requirements and parameters, and what level of authority you need to grant.
  3. Describe the new responsibility in detail, outlining sub-tasks, defining any necessary parameters, and setting performance standards and checkpoints
  4. Think about how to present the assignment to an employee.
  5. Create an assignment brief: It’s good to write down all these items. Prepare a copy for your delegatee, too, because this minimizes miscommunication.
  6. Choose the right person. This means assessing the skills and the experience of your employees as objectively as possible. This also means not automatically picking someone you already know you can depend on.

Presenting the Assignment

  1. Give an overview of the assignment to your chosen delegatee, including its relevance and importance.
  2. Tell them why you have chosen them for the job.
  3. Detail the new responsibility: Tell them about sub-tasks, necessary parameters, and performance standards.
  4. Make sure the employee understands the level or degree of authority granted to them.
  5. Let the employee know whom they can turn to for help. By all means, also point them toward other available resources.
  6. Solicit questions, reactions, and suggestions. At this point, ask the employee what approach they might want to take.
  7. Listen to the employee’s comments and respond empathetically. This step helps to get employee buy-in. It’ll also tell you if employee does indeed understand what is expected of him/her.
  8. Ask the employee for commitment and offer help or some type of back-up assistance.
  9. Establish priorities. An employee who already feels overwhelmed may worry about completing the assignments already on their plate. They may not know how to delegate effectively themselves. In this case, relieve some of the pressure. For instance, you can get someone else to take over less important tasks for the duration of the assignment.
  10. Be encouraging. Express confidence in the employee’s ability to successfully handle the new responsibility.
  11. Establish checkpoints, deadlines, and ways to monitor progress.
  12. Finally, note that the entire discussion should be a collaborative process. You should strive for a mutual agreement.

After Assignment

  1. Notify those affected by the delegatee’s new power.
  2. Keep in touch with the employee and monitor the checkpoints the two of you agreed to.
  3. Remember not to hover, because knowing how to delegate effectively means letting go.
  4. Recognize and reward the person for his/her successful completion of the assignment.

Avoid These Pitfalls

1. Reverse or upward delegation. Sometimes employees feel they don’t know how to do the delegated task. You may find them coming back and asking you what to do. Many managers fall into the trap of taking the assignment back. Encourage employees to solve the problem for themselves instead.

This is the perfect opportunity to practice coaching skills. Ask the employee various open-ended questions. In particular, find out what has already been done. After that, ask what they think should be the next step. Then, offer help and support. Most importantly, don’t take back an assignment that you have delegated to someone else.

2. Dumping. You may think you are doing an excellent job delegating an assignment to one of your employees.  You may then wonder why the individual is not excited about the opportunity. The reason is often just poor communication. It is easy to assume that the employee knows and understands your motivation, but often the employee perceives that he is being ‘dumped on,’ that is, taken advantage of. To prevent this from happening, take special care to explain the benefit to the employee. Above all, remember to point out the WIIFT – What’s In It For Them.

3. Grabbing the glory. Some managers seem to overlook the importance of giving credit where credit is due, and take credit for the delegatees’ hard work. Make sure that you give the appropriate recognition and then quietly appreciate yourself for being a great delegator.