How to delegate: Tips for delegating tasks at work

June 3, 2021 - 22 min read

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The importance of delegation

Why is it so difficult for some people to delegate?

How to know when to delegate

How to know who you should delegate to

What does micromanaging mean?

How to delegate: the DOs and DON’Ts of effective delegation

The benefits of delegating

Four strengths related to delegating

The challenges of delegating

Final tips to help you with delegating tasks

Delegation is the act of assigning tasks to other members of your team. It improves efficiency and decreases the burden on your shoulders. It's also a great way to develop others and free yourself up for more strategic work.

The act of delegating is easier said than done. Effective managers need to know how to delegate and what they can do to ensure success.

Let’s talk about why so many find delegating difficult. We’ll also cover how to develop delegation skills that are essential for leadership success.

The importance of delegation

At the most fundamental level, delegation is assigning work to others. Delegation frequently occurs when you assign work that you could do yourself to someone else on your team. 

When you delegate, you demonstrate trust by transferring primary ownership of the work to someone else. 

This makes delegation a collaborative activity. You, as the leader, remain involved in overseeing the quality and timeliness of the work.

Organizations thrive when leaders successfully delegate. When delegation occurs, tasks and authority are shared across individuals and teams.

Research shows that delegation is highly linked to: 

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Delegation also grows and develops your staff members by giving them new opportunities to develop skills. 

You expand the strengths and capacities of your team by appropriately delegating.

Delegation is also part of each person’s leadership journey. Shifting your energy from being an individual contributor to a manager through delegation will help you advance in your career by giving you more time to do higher-level work.

Why is it so difficult for some people to delegate?

There are many reasons why leaders find delegating difficult. As you read the list below of reasons for not delegating, make a note of which ones apply to you.

  • Time. Lack of time is the most commonly used reason for not delegating. It represents the belief that delegating to someone else takes more time than doing the work themselves. Especially when deadlines are tight, you might be more likely to roll up your sleeves and do the work yourself.
  • Identity. Over the years, you have invested in your area of expertise and your technical skills.  New managers often have their identity and sense of worth at the office associated with being a productive individual contributor.
  • Emotional attachment. Some people are simply too emotionally invested in the work to assign it to someone else.  For example, you already have a vision in your mind of the end product, and you do not want someone else taking it in a different direction.
  • Guilt. You may feel guilty when assigning work to busy colleagues, especially when you do not have positional authority over them. Guilt is powerful — no one wants to feel as if they are dumping work on already busy coworkers.
  • Trust. There may be a person (or a couple of people) on your team who you don’t trust to execute tasks. Maybe they don't yet have the needed skill level or have not performed to your expectations in the past. You might not even be aware that you don't trust them. Bottomline, especially for important projects, many people trust themselves to do excellent work more than they trust others.
  • Fear of failure. In another BetterUp article, I wrote about how fear of failure is a psychological driver for many decisions in the workplace. You may feel that the best way to avoid the possibility of failure is to do the work yourself.
  • Authority. You may be avoiding delegating because you are uncomfortable using your positional authority. This is especially common when someone is newly promoted and now supervises people who used to be their peers. 
  • Rewards. Those in middle management often report that they are evaluated and rewarded more for their work contributions than their management skills.  When your manager does not support or acknowledge your efforts to delegate, it can be harder to prioritize.

How to know when to delegate

Let’s take a look at an example about when delegation is necessary. 

Mary was overwhelmed and having a hard time focusing. She was a software engineer recently promoted to manager of a team of four. 

Mary had sought the promotion, but it resulted in her doing all her prior engineering tasks and the new management job. 

She spent her day in back-to-back meetings causing her to work during the evenings and weekends. 

Everyone on her team was maxed out, Mary said. She could not delegate anything that was on her plate.

Mary’s story is reflective of a challenge for new and seasoned managers alike: delegating work to others. As shown in her example, managers who try to “do it all” become overburdened at work and risk burnout. 

Many people find themselves in a similar position. That’s why we have identified the barriers holding you back from effective delegating. Now you can begin to diminish them by practicing. 

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To get started, consider these three times when delegation is a good idea:

    1. Identify a task you have done so many times that it no longer provides a new or unique intellectual challenge for you. What feels redundant for you might be a growth opportunity for someone else on your team.
    2. Open your calendar and look at your weekly standing meetings. Which meetings do you attend that one or more of your direct reports also attend? Ask yourself whether they could staff that meeting without you, freeing up an hour of your time every week.
    3. Review your to-do list for items that you are doing that fall under the job description of one of your staff members. You may be doing something – or many things – that should be done as part of someone else’s job.

How to know who you should delegate to

A major component of successful delegation is giving the right task to the right person. 

As a delegator, you want to ensure that you give the task to someone who can rise to the occasion and accomplish it. 

You are no longer responsible for personally executing the task. But you are responsible for ensuring the task is completed. 

It is critical that you delegate to the right person and provide them with the tools and instruction that they need to execute it fully.

However, that is easier said than done. Finding the right person to delegate a task to can often be challenging for a good manager. 

What should you look for? How should you evaluate team members that you’re considering for a delegated task?

There are four essential qualities to look for in employees who can be optimal targets for delegation. 

These qualities are:

  1. Ambitious. They are eager to go above and beyond for any tasks they receive.

  2. Resourceful. They can do a lot with only what is at hand.

  3. Listeners. They actively intake and digest information given to them.

  4. Detail-oriented. They notice the little things and take them into account.

Employees that have some — or all — of these qualities are great options to take care of specific tasks for you. This is because each of those qualities focuses on a different aspect of the delegation process. 

That aspect could be listening to intake of all of the instructions or being ambitious enough to never say no to a challenge.

However, it’s important to note that these qualities don’t automatically guarantee success when delegating. 

There are still many variables, including your ability to articulate the instructions, the given timeline, and the tools available. And the most important variable: the support you provide.

Your role as a manager is to ensure that the person you’re delegating to feels supported while they are completing the job. You should be the one they look to as a resource. They should approach you for counsel and advice.

You will play a critical role in ensuring that your employee has the support they need to finish the task. 

You can — and should — do many different things to help the person who has received your task.

You can offer support by:

When you think about delegation, it’s important to remember that your employee’s success is also your success. 

The act of explaining the task and supporting the employee who is now in charge of it is a critical role that you’ll always have to play.

By being supportive and assisting the employees responsible for the task, you can ensure that the project gets completed in the right way without having to execute it by yourself. 

This sets both you and your employee up for success, and everybody will win.

What does micromanaging mean?

Have you ever worked for someone who believes there is only one right way, theirs? If so, you have been micromanaged.

Micromanaging is delegation gone awry. It occurs when a leader has assigned a task but cannot seem to let go of the ownership of that task. Micromanagers conflate assigning work with overseeing exactly how to do the work.

While micromanagement is common among new managers, it is seen at all levels, especially among individuals who are insecure in their position or overly emotionally attached to their work. 

Leaders who micromanage tend to have low levels of trust and flexibility. If you see signs of micromanagement in your approach or among others on your team, review the list of good delegation practices and ones to avoid.

How to delegate: the DOs and DON’Ts of effective delegation

Let’s take a look at six effective delegation practices and six practices you should avoid:

Effective delegation practices

  1. DO clearly communicate who is delegated which tasks and why.

    Use one-on-ones and team meetings to clarify individual and team goals and the distribution of work across team members. 

    Try to make the best match between assignments and individuals in order to enhance engagement.

  2. DO see yourself as a coach or a trainer.

    Provide all the information and instructions the person needs for the assignment.

    Clearly establish what the completion criteria are so that it’s clear when the task is complete and successful.

  3. DO empower and support them along the way.

    Let your team members know that you are available and welcome questions and clarifications.

    Provide constructive feedback, guidance, and course correction in a respectful manner.

  4. DO flex to what the staff member needs.

    Each person is at a different stage in their career development and will require something different from you.

  5. DO hold people accountable.

    Delegating means that you have transferred authority for the task to someone else. But, as a leader, you still have to hold them accountable. Sometimes leaders can become too “hands-off” and get too out of touch with their staff’s work.

  6. DO give yourself an immediate reward.

    The easiest reward is time. For example, if you delegate a weekly meeting to someone else, don’t let another meeting take up that hour.

    Block that time on your calendar to work on a project that is important to you or will provide you with an opportunity to shine.

Six delegation practices to avoid

  1. DON’T micromanage.

    Give your team members the time and space to do the work and avoid checking in too frequently. If you co-create meeting schedules and deadlines at the outset, you won’t need to micromanage the process.

  2. DON’T take work back after you’ve delegated it.

    Even if things are not going well, stick with the person and dial up your level of support.

  3. DON’T fixate on the negative.

    Allow for hiccups and small failures. Keep the vibe positive, and make sure that you don’t squash enthusiasm.

  4. DON’T be closed to new ideas or new ways of doing the work.

    Delegating means transferring ownership of the work to another person. Their end product will be different from what you would have done.

    Embrace the diversity of thought and allow for their creative expression to shine.

  5. DON’T present other’s work as your own or without proper attribution.

    Be transparent about who is doing the work and give them credit by name in meetings and written communications.

  6. DON’T give up on yourself.

    Becoming an expert at delegating is a journey of fits and starts.

    I recently worked with a client who had 20 years of leadership experience. They still faced delegation challenges with specific individuals and situations.

The benefits of delegating

Sharing responsibility for accomplishing tasks has many positive outcomes for teams and organizations. 

Delegating contributes to an organizational culture of trust and empowerment. In high-trust organizations, managers focus on the whole person. They encourage their employees to grow professionally and personally. 

They give employees autonomy in how they craft their jobs, manage their time, and accomplish their tasks.

Research by Paul J Zak demonstrates that employees who work in high trust organizations have improved:

On an individual level, you as the leader will also benefit from improving your comfort with delegating. 

You will find that you have more time on your calendar and increased opportunities for strategic work. You will also have greater visibility and lower stress.

Four strengths related to delegating

When practicing the art of delegating, you will invoke a number of your strengths and competencies.

manager standing at flip chart and explaining details of delegation

  1. Empowerment. We define empowerment as authority or power given to someone to do something. Every time you delegate is an opportunity to invoke your strength of empowerment.

  2. Coaching. You can develop your strength of coaching through delegation. You use conversations to:

  • Encourage your staff members’ performance 
  • Guide and support them through projects
  • Enable their career growth
  1. Alignment. By clarifying roles and assignments, you help your team achieve alignment with larger organizational goals.

  2. Relationship building. Delegation inherently involves relationships with others. Through the process of delegation, you collaborate, experience mutuality, and improve your relationships.

The challenges of delegating

If you don’t often do it, delegating can feel like a struggle. 

That’s because delegating is hard work for a variety of reasons. Some people get overwhelmed and can’t truly give up the task. 

They want to do everything on their own to ensure it meets their standard.

However, businesses can’t scale this way, and it isn’t realistic to think you can do everything. Most would agree with that statement, so why is it so hard to delegate? 

Well, there are plenty of obstacles that can make the act of delegating a challenging process. These include errors in the final product, overwhelming the employee, and struggling with the time investment.

businesswoman planning delegation

Some other factors contribute to delegation failings as well. Harvard Business Review attributes a lack of critical thinking, initiative, quality, and speed as the four main reasons why delegation could fail

Let’s take a look at some of the main challenges you may have to overcome when delegating.

The task doesn’t get done correctly

Perhaps the most frustrating experience about delegation is when you do everything right, but the project that you delegated doesn’t meet the standard you need. 

This is one of the biggest fears associated with delegating.

To counteract this challenge, take the time to give proper, thorough instructions. Provide your employee with time to ask questions and answer thoroughly. 

Give plenty of examples as well as tips that the employee can use while they are completing the task. 

Be sure not to rush through this step. 

Providing thorough instructions is critical to ensure that the foundation for a successful project is set in place. It eliminates the chance that the task is not done correctly.

The employee gets overwhelmed

Not everyone knows what they’re signing up for when they accept a new task. 

It is very important to prepare the employee that you’re delegating to prior to beginning the task. This will help them adjust their expectations and plan accordingly, so they won’t get overwhelmed.

Check-in periodically and ask if the employee needs any additional help. This will help counteract the threat of overwhelming them.

This can instill confidence in them to complete the task to your specifications.

It takes too long to delegate

Sometimes, it might just feel like it’s better to do a task by yourself. 

In those instances, you should weigh the time it would take you to do it, and the time it would take you to explain the instructions to an employee.

As mentioned above, the instructional component of delegating is critical. You need to be thorough and take the time to explain what you’re seeking. 

However, this process can be time-consuming, especially if you need to educate or teach someone how to do something. 

That’s why it’s so critical to weigh the time costs associated with the delegation before going for it.

Final tips to help you with delegating tasks

You will probably have setbacks in delegating. At these times, keep in mind the higher-level purpose behind your commitment to delegating tasks. 

Remind yourself what career goals you are accomplishing by letting go of your past work. Your skills are better used as a leader than as an individual contributor.

You can also seek feedback from team members, managers, and coworkers on how to improve your delegation skills. They may be able to see opportunities for you to be more effective with your delegation.

Finally, don’t fall into the cognitive trap of believing it will take less time to do the work yourself. Measure the time saved through delegation in the long-term, not the short term.

Delegating can help you empower employees and develop better relationships with them. Consider working with a BetterUp coach to help you learn how to delegate tasks effectively.

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Published June 3, 2021

Paula Thompson, Ed.D

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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