New ways to think about delegation


Learn how to delegate – and be delegated to – more effectively with these simple steps

When Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn addressed staff in June 2015, he insisted there was an answer to the organisation’s waning profits, conflict among senior managers and production inefficiencies: good old fashioned delegation. Promising to devolve more responsibility from head office to individual brands and regional teams, Winterkorn said that the move would make the business “faster, more flexible and more agile”.

The art of delegation is as old as leadership itself. In fact, Moses’ father-in-law advocates for delegation in the New Testament, when he tells his work-weary son-in-law, “The thing that you do is not good. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself… You shall select from all the people able men… Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you.”[i]

Two thousand years later managers everywhere still struggle to delegate effectively. A 2013 executive coaching survey by Stanford University found that 37% of CEOs are actively trying to become better delegators. Yet despite extolling the virtues of delegation, leaders often trail off with a “but” – “It’s easier to do it myself”, “I don’t have time to train someone else”, “If you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself”; the latter being code for “I don’t trust anyone else to do it”.

“With some hard work, even a bad delegator can improve,” says

Professor Laura Lunsford from the Psychology department at the University of Arizona. A common problem in today’s workplace is that managers – whether they’re leading a project, a handful of direct reports or a corporation of thousands – mistake their failure to delegate with general busyness, work overload or attention to detail. Writing in Malta Today Business, Kevin-James Fenech suggests that if you can answer “true” to any of the following points, you “are a micro-manager who struggles to delegate and as a result of this you are not maximising your chances of success”. [ii] 

  1. You are never completely satisfied with the deliverables of your people
  2. You are obsessed with details and take great satisfaction from correcting other people’s work
  3. You constantly want to know what everyone is working on
  4. You expect to be copied in on everything
  5. You work longer hours than the people who report to you. 


Mistake number one: Thinking, “I don’t have anyone to delegate to”

Delegation is not the prerogative of team leaders with multiple resources; it’s an essential skill anyone can and must master at any stage in their career, says author of Work Simply: Embracing The Power Of Your Personal Productivity Style, Carson Tate.

When resources are scarce and the pressure is on, finding someone or something to delegate to requires a little creativity. “Can you hire an intern? Can a temporary worker take on a task that has been bottlenecking your progress? Can you outsource some of the work to a virtual assistant — an online assistant, working remotely, who can handle specific assignments on either a per-task or hourly basis, thereby saving you the costs of a part-time or full-time employee? Can you partner with another division or department of your company — or even with an outside firm — and split the cost for a project that will benefit both organisations?” says Tate.

Even if you’re not a people manager, it’s possible to delegate. Discuss with your boss the possibility of sourcing help from other teams or borrowing someone from another department who’s interested in the work you do and would like to gain valuable experience. Your boss will be impressed by your industriousness and you’ll gain management skills in the process.


Mistake number two: Delegating tasks but remaining “hands on”

So you’ve handed over an assignment to an employee, freeing you up to get on with another task. Job done, right? Wrong says Emma Isaacs, CEO of Business Chicks, who time and time again sees managers delegate a task only to spend the time ‘saved’ on micromanaging said individual as they attempt to execute.

“The aim here is not perfection – the aim is to save you time,” says Isaacs. So while it’s important to provide a very clear objective, deadline and quality standard (“These reports need to be proofread and edited to a standard whereby we’re able to send them to the printer by 4pm Tuesday,” for example), constantly interjecting to highlight how the employee should be going about the task (“I’d start like this; then I’d___”) is likely to frustrate your employee, save you little time and ultimately leave you feeling that you’d have been better off doing it yourself. In other words: give explicit instructions, then step away.

“It’s hard to give explicit instructions because, essentially, giving orders is no fun,” says Steve Radcliffe, author of Leadership Plain & Simple. “As much as work is about results, it’s also about relationships and people want to be liked, which makes us shun direct orders. If someone comes in with a big request, they might feel they risk ruining that positive atmosphere.”

But most people just want to know what’s expected of them and by when, and then given the freedom to get there in their own style.

One survey has found that it takes around 66 days to form a new habit and stick to it.[iii] To become a better delegator, commit to delegating with clear instructions and no micromanagement for two months and see where it leads you (crucially, the survey also found that if you mess up along the way and fall into micromanagement territory, all is not lost; just revert back to healthier habits as soon as possible to stay on track).


Mistake number three: Believing that successful delegation lies solely with the delegator

The delegee plays an essential role in the delegation process. If you live up to your end of the bargain, you’ll save your boss time, maybe give yourself a rewarding stretch assignment and earn a reputation as an invaluable team member. But you’ll also have helped your manager hone their all-important delegation skills for the benefit of themselves, the organisation at large and future direct reports.

It goes without saying that if a task is delegated to you, you need to complete it to the desired standard and deadline. But it’s also partly your responsibility to ensure you understand exactly what is expected. If your boss’s instructions are more ‘how’ than ‘what’, politely enquire about the overall objective – what is to be delivered and when. Repeat this back to your boss to show that you’ve understood. If you already have a clear idea how you’d go about the task, assert this clearly: “I’d like to start by ___ and proceed by ___”. If your boss presses for their own solution, clarify how and why you’ve had success with your own methods in the past.

If you know that your boss has a tendency to micromanage, suggest a communication plan for how you’d like the process to play out, framed around freeing up your boss to get on with other tasks and allowing you to bring this one to a successful conclusion: “I’ll make a start on this by [time and date] in order to achieve this by [time and date]. I know you’ll be curious how I’m getting on so how about I check in with you briefly at ___ intervals. That way you’ll be able to get on with ___ and I know I can come to you if anything gets in the way of my plan.”

If trust is an issue, successful completion of a task is a sure-fire way to begin building partnership between you and your boss. If you’re aiming to show your team leader that you can manage independently, this doesn’t mean that you can’t go to them if things go wrong or you’re unsure. Quite the opposite, the worried boss will ultimately become a better delegator if you reach out to them when you need their help.