There are so many reasons why it makes sense to delegate. First of all, delegation allows direct reports to grow and learn new tasks. Second, it allows managers to take on more responsibilities. And delegation provides the opportunity for people to do work that is appropriate for their skill set.
Nevertheless, a complaint I often hear from employees is that their managers don’t delegate to them. The inability or unwillingness to delegate can hold managers back and frustrate their subordinates. To improve their abilities, managers need to first realize what is keeping them from delegating and then learn how to align their delegating approach to their staff’s skills, experience, interests, and motivators.
Why People Don’t Delegate
“I can do it faster than if I have to explain it to others.”
“I don’t want to overload my staff.”
“I feel guilty delegating junk work.”
“I’m the only one who can do it.”
Managers have all kinds of reasons for not delegating. As a coach, the first thing I want from my clients is the real reason they don’t want to delegate. And then I ask them to look at their reasoning differently.
If the story they tell me is that they can do the work faster on their own, I ask if the task is a recurring one. If so, investing the time to teach others will pay off in the long run. If it is a one-time task, perhaps doing it themselves is the better way to go.
It is laudable that a manager doesn’t want to overload staff. I ask them to consider whether the staff would develop by doing the task and would in fact be willing to take on more work for the opportunity to learn and grow. And while administrivia isn’t exactly thrilling work, by spreading it among staff, no one has to take on too much of it. Some managers lay out the monthly admin tasks and let people sign up for whichever they prefer to do. For some people, tackling routine work can be satisfying and provide relief from complex tasks. And some may actually enjoy doing basic tasks. Managers shouldn’t assume that just because they don’t like to do it other people won’t.
I have found that some managers simply don’t like asking for help under any circumstances. I remind them that part of their job is to develop their staff, and delegating work is one way they can achieve that without feeling like they are imposing. Giving staff increased responsibility and the opportunity to learn new things is important for their growth.
After significant probing some managers confess that they don’t delegate work because they are more comfortable doing the tasks they know than taking on the higher-level work. I point out that in declining to develop competencies necessary to advance in their own careers they’re also stifling the development of their staff. And while they may think they’re protecting their job by being the only person skilled in an important area, they are digging themselves into a hole. They’ll never be promoted if no one can step into their job. These revelations often lead to deeper conversations about what they from their jobs.
When managers delegate work, they send a message that says they have confidence in their staff and want to prepare them to move up in the organization. People want to learn and grow and develop new skills, but they can’t if their manager holds on to all the work.
Approaches to Delegating
There is no one way to delegate. As Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey explained in their seminal Situational Leadership Model, managers need to base their approach to leading on the skills and experience of their individual direct reports. The four leadership styles they identified—Directing, Coaching, Supporting, and Delegating—offer insight into how managers can effectively delegate work.
If someone is new to the job and has no context for the assignment, a directive approach is appropriate. In this situation, the manager tells the person what is expected and exactly how to complete the assignment, listing the specific steps to follow. By giving timely feedback on what worked and what should be done differently, the manager will help the person gain confidence and improve.
Once people understand the task, it is important to boost their confidence by asking them how they would approach the work and then set goals collaboratively. The more they understand why the task is needed and how the project or information will be used the better able they will be to complete it correctly. By working this way, the manager and direct reports build trust with each other.
Sometimes an employee is competent at a task but may not be fully committed to getting it done correctly or on time. In a supportive approach, the manager emphasizes how completing the tasks helps the organization and the employee. When employees understand how tasks contribute to career success they become more self-directed.
Direct reports who know the job and why it matters can set their own goals and determine what is needed for success. They are competent and empowered. The manager needs little follow-up other than praising the employee for demonstrating initiative.
Keys to Effective Delegating
In addition to employees’ skill levels and experience, it’s important to consider motivation, interest, and impact when delegating. A motivated employee requires little additional encouragement. Motivation may come from a desire to learn and grow, the prospect of getting promoted, or a penchant for helping others. When a manager knows what motivates employees, tasks can be framed in a way that makes them eager to take work on. And having a supportive, caring manager can turbocharge whatever motivates the individual to perform.
Some tasks are more interesting to some people than others. Delegating tasks to employees that align with their interests will be received well. And when people can choose which tasks to take on they tend to be more committed to doing them well.
For some people, the potential impact a task has can carry great weight. If they know the work being delegated to them can save a client’s business or make a difference in the world, their motivation to do the task increases.
Because each person is unique—varying in their skills, experience, motivations, interests, and need for impact—no single approach to delegating will work for everyone. The more managers understand the goals, skills, and motivators of their direct reports as well as reasons for their reluctance to delegate work, the better they and their staff can grow and achieve success.
Guidelines for Delegating Work
Effective delegation requires clear and specific communication. Your people need to know what you want, of whom, by when, and the conditions of satisfaction. Here are some guidelines:
- Build a supportive climate with your employees
- Pay close attention to what they say
- Demonstrate support for them with upper management
- Provide recognition for their ideas and their work
- Establish trust and mutual respect
- Take a personal interest in them and their work
- Actively solicit their opinions, ideas and information
- Make the best use of their skills and abilities
- Provide adequate information
- Explain how their assignment contributes to the team’s overall objectives
- Describe how the completed assignment will be evaluated (conditions of satisfaction)
- List the factors that will be used in evaluating their performance
- Explain where they can get additional information or help in performing the assignment
- Note any resources available to accomplish the task
- Specify when the assignment must be completed
- Give timely feedback
- Recognize good performance more often than poor performance
- Create a learning environment where mistakes are accepted
- Provide coaching on what they can do to improve
- Identify and take appropriate action regarding unsatisfactory performance
- Encourage employees to be open in asking for help and admitting mistakes or weaknesses
- Clarify your expectations
- Communicate in a frank and candid manner regarding what you want from your employees
- Explain exactly what degree of authority the employee has in completing the task
- Describe what role you and the employee will play in accomplishing the assignment
- Express confidence in your employees’ abilities to accomplish the assignment
- Confirm that the employees understand the assignment
- Ask employees to put in their words what you are asking them to do
- Verify their engagement by getting a clear yes, no, counteroffer, or commitment to commit