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How to delegate: Tips for delegating tasks at work

May 5, 2022 - 17 min read


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What does it mean to delegate

The benefits of delegating

The importance of delegation

Why is it so difficult for some people to delegate?

How to delegate (and how not to)

When to delegate

4 skills for effective delegating

Common challenges of delegating

Being able to delegate tasks is a crucial leadership skill. Effective managers need to know how to delegate and what they can do to ensure success. But the act of delegating is easier said than done.

Managers have trouble delegating for a variety of reasons. 

  • It requires trusting your team
  • It can be hard to let go of projects you’ve owned from their ideation
  • It requires more feedback cycles than when you do the work yourself

Concerns like these are valid and understandable. Sharing your legos can be tough. But knowing how and when to delegate your work can be a lifesaver in the long run.

Let’s talk about the importance of delegation and ways to develop the essential delegation skills for an effective leader’s success.

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, encouraging 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:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Engagement
  • Performance

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.


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

Delegation also grows and develops your employees by giving them learning pathways to hone existing and new skills. 

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

Delegation is also part of each person’s leadership journey. Shifting an employee’s focus from an individual contributor to a manager through delegation frees up more time for them to do higher-level work. This experience will ladder into helping them advance in their career.

manager standing at flip chart and explaining details of delegation

Why is it so difficult for some people to delegate?

There are many reasons why even good leaders find delegating difficult. As you read the list below of reasons for not delegating, note 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 skillset. New managers often associate their identity and sense of worth at the office with being productive individual contributors.
  • 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 like 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 your team. Bottom line, especially for important projects, many people trust themselves to do excellent work more than they trust others.
  • Fear of failure. 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 avoid delegating because you are uncomfortable using your positional authority. It can feel daunting to let go of decision-making authority. This is especially common when someone is newly promoted and now oversees people who used to be their peers. 
  • Rewards. Those in middle management often report being 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 delegate (and how not to)

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

Effective delegation practices

  • DO clearly communicate who is being given 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 to enhance engagement. 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.
  • 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.
  • DO flex to what the staff member needs.
    Each person is at a different stage in their professional development and will require something different from you.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Delegation practices to avoid

  • 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 due dates at the outset, you won’t need to micromanage the process.
  • 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.
  • DON’T fixate on the negative.
    Allow for hiccups and small failures. Keep the vibe positive, and ensure that you don’t squash enthusiasm.
  • 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.
  • DON’T present others’ 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.
  • DON’T give up on yourself.
    Becoming an expert at delegating is a journey of fits and starts.
    Even with 20 years of leadership experience, delegation challenges can still arise.

When to delegate

Many people find themselves overburdened trying to “do it all.” That’s why we have identified the barriers holding you back from effective delegating. Now you can begin to diminish them by practicing. 

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. 

4 skills for effective delegating

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

  1. Empowerment. We define empowerment as authority or power being transferred to someone to do something. Every time you delegate is an opportunity to invoke your ability to empower others.
  2. Coaching. You can develop your peer and leadership coaching skills through delegation. You use conversations to encourage performance guide your team, and enable their career growth.
  3. Alignment. By clarifying roles and assignments, you help your team achieve alignment with larger organizational goals.
  4. Relationship building. Delegation inherently involves relationships with others. Through the process of delegation, you collaborate, experience mutuality, and build good work relationships.
businesswoman planning delegation

Common 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 hard to delegate? 

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

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

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

If the task doesn’t get done correctly

The most frustrating experience about delegation is when you do everything right, but the project you delegate 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 and 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, and it reduces the risk 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 essential to prepare the employee you’re delegating to before beginning the task. This will help them adjust their expectations and plan accordingly to avoid getting overwhelmed.

Check in periodically and ask if the employee needs any additional help. This is especially true if this is the first time they’re working on this kind of project. 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 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 critical to weigh the time costs associated with the delegation before going for it.

Final thoughts on 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, try to avoid 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 BetterUp to help you learn how to delegate tasks effectively.

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Published May 5, 2022

Paula Thompson, Ed.D

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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