Delegation of authority: 6 steps to empower and get work done

August 20, 2021 - 22 min read

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What is the meaning of delegation?

Central elements of how to delegate authority

The importance of delegation

How to delegate responsibility

6 steps to effective delegation in management

Delegation of authority case studies

Delegation of authority brings greater success

To be an effective leader, it's important to learn the art of delegation.

One of the most difficult transitions for leaders to make is the shift from doing to leading. New managers often struggle with this, but even more seasoned leaders can default to doing.

Let’s break down what delegation of authority is and how you can do it effectively in your workplace.

If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate. 

John C. Maxwell

What is the meaning of delegation?

The delegation of authority refers to the division of labor and decision-making responsibility to an individual that reports to a leader or manager.

It is the organizational process of a manager dividing their own work among all their people. It involves giving them the responsibility to accomplish the tasks that are delegated to them in the way they see fit.

Along with responsibility, they also share the corresponding amount of authority. This ensures that tasks can be completed efficiently and that the individual feels actually responsible for their completion.

On one level, delegation is just dividing work into tasks that others can do.

At its best, delegation is empowering people to do the work they are best suited to. It allows them to invest themselves more in the work and develop their own skills and abilities. It also allows the manager to do other important work that might be more strategic or higher-level.

In other words, delegated authority is more than just parsing out work. It is truly sharing responsibility, ownership, and decision-making. Delegated authority is shared authority.

Delegating authority can also improve efficiency by making more employees accountable for their own work and activities. Less time and energy is spent on monitoring and micro-managing employees who are capable and competent. Your team becomes more capable and able to achieve higher performance as a result. 

Delegation is about entrusting another individual to do parts of your job and to accomplish them successfully.

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Central elements of how to delegate authority

There are three central elements involved in the delegation of authority:

infographic-three-elements-of-delegation-of-authority

1. Authority

In the context of a company, authority is the power and right of an individual to use and allocate their resources efficiently.

This includes the ability to make decisions and give orders to achieve the organizational objectives and goals.

This component should always be well-defined. Everyone with authority should know the scope of their authority.

Essentially, it is the right to give a command, meaning the top-level management always has the greatest authority.

There is a symbiotic relationship between authority and responsibility. So, authority, especially authority in management, should always be accompanied by an equal amount of responsibility if the task is to be completed successfully.

Similarly, there has long been a relationship between power and influence. Learn what this relationship should look like in our article: Power versus influence: How to build a legacy of leadership.

2. Responsibility

This refers to the specifics and scope of the individual to complete the task assigned to them.  

Responsibility without adequate authority can lead to:

  • Discontent
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Conflicts
  • Frustration for the individual

While authority flows from the top-down, responsibility flows from the bottom-up. Middle management and lower-level management hold more responsibility.

3. Accountability

Unlike authority and responsibility, accountability cannot be delegated. Rather, it is inherent in the bestowment of responsibility itself.

Anyone who sets out to accomplish a task and take on a job in a company becomes accountable for the outcome of their efforts.

Accountability, in short, means being answerable for the end result. Accountability arises from responsibility.

Authority flows downward, whereas accountability flows upward. The downward flow of authority and upward flow of accountability must be the same at each position of the management hierarchy.

The importance of delegation

Delegating has been shown to improve task efficiency and benefit the organization in ways that aren't obvious at first. 

A study by Harvard Business Review determined that delegating can actually increase organizations’ income and overall efficiency.

Not only does delegation empower others in the organization, but it also helps optimize the performance of the group.

Delegating empowers your team, builds trust, and motivates.

Thoughtful delegation, with support, is also a way to stretch and develop people within the work. This is often more powerful than through periodic professional development.

And for leaders, it helps you learn how to identify who is best suited to tackle tasks or projects.

As outlined in a Harvard Business Review article, one team leader adopted a delegation strategy and made the shift from simply being busy to being productive.

Of course, delegating tasks can also lighten your workload. But according to Dr. Scott Williams, delegating does much more than just get stuff off your plate.

For one, the people who work for you will be able to develop new skills and gain knowledge. This prepares them for more responsibility in the future.

Williams writes:

“Delegation can also be a clear sign that you respect your subordinates’ abilities and that you trust their discretion … Employees who feel that they are trusted and respected tend to have a higher level of commitment to their work, their organization, and, especially, their managers.”

Delegation empowers employees by enabling them to demonstrate their capability to take on new work.

How to delegate responsibility

There are several ways you can transfer responsibilities to employees depending on the needs of your workplace.

You can use the following types of delegation of authority to assign tasks to various team members in the workplace:

infographic-5-ways-to-delegate-authority

Departments

You can delegate the supervision of a particular department to another employee. For example, if you’re a CEO, you could delegate authority over the entire marketing department to the marketing director.

Projects

You can assign an employee or group of employees to complete a specific project from start to finish.

For example, the marketing director could assign an advertising campaign to a project manager or project lead. The project manager then assembles a team of copywriters and designers to collaborate on the project. Each of these collaborators performs specific delegated duties.

The marketing director has delegated authority to the project lead. The project lead might further delegate to the team if they are all skilled and familiar with the intent and desired outcomes. If the collaborators are mostly freelancers or more junior staff, the project lead may delegate tasks but hold onto authority and be more involved in monitoring the various tasks.

Decision making

You can give one of your employees the power to make certain decisions so that you can focus on other work. For example, as a marketing director, you could delegate authority to the assistant marketing director to hire employees for the department when needed. 

Analysis

When you need more information, you can ask employees to complete detailed research on the topic. If you’re a marketing project manager, you can ask someone on the demand gen team to research demographic statistics for their advertising campaign’s intended audience. 

Administrative processes

You may also delegate administrative tasks, like data entry, to other employees.

As the marketing manager, for instance, you may assign social media monitoring to a marketing assistant.

6 steps to effective delegation in management

infographic-6-steps-to-effective-delegation-in-management-delegation-of-authority

Let’s take a look at six steps you can use to delegate effectively.

1. Plan and prepare

Before starting a formal delegation process, take the time to think through the task and decide who you’ll delegate to and the outcome you want.

In addition, identify a goal and purpose for the delegated functions. Your goal will determine the approach you take.

2. Discuss the task to be delegated

Engage the employee in a specific conversation about the task you want to delegate. Then make sure you both are in agreement regarding the task and the outcome you desire.

This step is useful to set expectations and state the quality of work that needs to be completed.

It is also useful to state why you are delegating the task to that person.

Alex Cavoulacos, the founder of The Muse, says:

“When you select people to delegate to, tell them why you chose them specifically and how you hope to see this help them grow.”

3. Identify the deadline for completion

Make sure your deadline is realistic and achievable.

This is particularly important when delegating a stretch goal or something the person has not done before.

If you think the employee might need some revision time, build it upfront. This ensures that you do not end up at the deadline with an outcome that is different from the one you wanted.

When setting the deadline, consider where the delegated task fits in with the person’s existing job responsibilities.

4. Outline the level of authority

Clearly outline the level of authority you want the person to have. Different levels of authority include the following.

  • Recommend. If the risk associated with the task is high or the person has little experience, you may ask the person for a recommendation on a course of action. But you make the final decision.

  • Inform and initiate. If the risk associated with the task is moderate and the person has some experience, the person will inform you before they take action.

  • Act. The person has full authority to act on his or her own if either the risk associated with the task is low or the person has plenty of experience.

5. Build in checkpoints or progress reports

Set regular checkpoints right at the beginning to provide support and follow-through. You can use checkpoints to review the work and give feedback or even provide encouragement and coaching.

6. Conduct a final debriefing

The final debriefing consists of a two-way discussion about how the delegated task went.

Debriefing involves a mutual inquiry:

  1. Ask the employee to reflect on their own performance on the task or project. It helps to ask questions, such as what they thought went well, what they thought could have been better about the project, and what they would do differently if they could do it again.
  2. Provide feedback on how you think they did
  3. Have the person provide feedback on your performance as a delegator. Again, specific questions can be helpful: Where could I have been more clear? What other types of support would have been helpful to you?

Delegation of authority case studies

In order to further illustrate what delegation of authority in management looks like, let’s take a look at three case studies:

Delegation of authority case study 1:

Seth Kehne, the owner of Lawn Butler in East Tennessee, started his company in 1999. He watched it grow slowly from a small side business, then suddenly he realized revenue had doubled.

But because the growth was gradual, he never took steps to put a management system in place for a larger company. With everyone reporting to Kehne, he was stretched thin.

It limited the company’s growth because managers didn’t feel they had the freedom to do their jobs without his approval.

Plus, as the chief executive officer, Kehne was working too many hours “managing instead of delegating.”

“By failing to delegate, I’d been holding back my managers. They didn’t have the complete authority they needed to do what they needed to do.” Kehne says.

Part of the solution was to implement an organizational chart. It included managers’ new duties and delegated responsibilities.

It also reduced the number of people reporting directly to Kehne from more than 20 down to four.

“To be honest, I thought I had already delegated a lot of my responsibilities. But once we had this organization chart in place, I realized that I really hadn’t,” Kehne shared.

As managers and employees assumed their new roles, operations became increasingly smoother. This allowed for even more growth.

“Things just operate better now,” Kehne said, adding sales are up 50% since he implemented the change two years ago.

Other improvements include:

  • Better work hours thanks to more efficient operations (at least five to 10 fewer hours per week)
  • Positive customer response
  • Better employee job satisfaction

Delegation of authority case study 2:

Jane is a senior manager at an IT firm and has a team member Amanda who reports directly to her.

Things have not been smooth for them for the last few weeks. In the last project that Jane delegated to Amanda, she started to feel she would be better off doing it herself.

While Amanda is willing to take on additional assignments, she just doesn’t seem to be willing to be responsible for the assignment. She won’t do anything without first checking in with Jane.

The last time Amanda came into the office, Jane told her to forget what she is doing, and she’ll give it to someone else who can handle the assignment. After Amanda left, Brian realized she didn’t handle that well.

Jane later sat down with Amanda to discuss the situation further and figured out how best to proceed in collaboration with Amanda. She apologized to Amanda for how she handled the last encounter and realized that she had to delegate the tasks differently to Amanda.

She asked Amanda to help her understand why she feels like she cannot take steps to complete an assignment.

Through an honest conversation with Amanda, Jane learned how best to delegate to Amanda.

Through a conversation, Jane learned more about her skills and experiences and where her comfort level is. This will enable Jane to more effectively manage delegated assignments.

Delegation of authority case study 3:

Anthony was promoted to Director of Finance. He had been chosen because he had the ability to fill the role, and his level of thinking and values matched what was needed for success in the position.

Prior to the promotion, he had served as a team leader of purchasing.

Six months later, several of his staff had approached the VP of Finance with their concerns that he was doing too much of the work that could be delegated. The team felt that he didn’t trust them and that they were not learning or growing.

Anthony was given feedback and coached to create an action plan. This included proper delegation of tasks to staff in line with their capabilities.

Anthony created the plan and appropriately delegated large portions of his responsibilities.

Staff members felt a welcome relief and reported that Anthony was now taking the time to coach them. He was explaining clearly and distinctly their results on work assignments.

Anthony had more time to both complete his work and improve his department. This created an increase in employee satisfaction and retention.

Delegation of authority brings greater success

Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the role that delegation can play in the success of your business.

Sometimes, letting go is the best thing you can do.

And, delegation can prove to be beneficial for your team and organization as a whole.

If you’re wanting to learn how to delegate work effectively but are struggling with where to start, consider working with a BetterUp coach to reach your goals.

ready to get a coach - coaching for individuals

Published August 20, 2021

Radha Mehrotra

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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