Leadership Topics: the Art of Delegation


In my twenties, I dreaded the popular interview question, “What is something that you are bad at?” I had the same answer every time: delegation. Fast forward to today, and I see the importance of delegation, and that my wiser self would definitely pick a different answer.

Building new leaders should be a priority for any organization. If you are considering leadership in your role, everything points to needing to develop your delegation skills.

Leaders do well to take time to evaluate how effective they are with delegating. In “Great Leaders Perfect the Art of Delegation,” author Jack Craven notes that if you feel overwhelmed or drained by all the meetings and decisions you make, this might be a red flag. He goes on to say that if you feel you cannot unplug from your work for more than a couple of hours or feel you don’t delegate “because a portion of the process is too complex or has exceptions,” it may be time to reevaluate your delegation style. Sostren of the Harvard Business Review writes, “to know if you’re guilty of holding on to too much, answer this simple question: If you had to take an unexpected week off work, would your initiatives and priorities advance in your absence?”

Okay, so maybe that got your attention and you see that you could benefit from honing your delegation skills. Let’s look first at what delegation is not. Delegation is not just the practice of handing off responsibility to others on your team. We have all been handed that job we had no talent for with no guidance and know how that feels. In these situations, we experienced bad delegation, or we might say, no delegation at all.

Delegation supports your team

Delegation is different for each person and depends on the individual relationship you have with each team member. To delegate effectively, leaders need to develop good trust in their team and know their report’s talents and strengths. As noted in my previous article, trust is a critical building block for team development. If you find you are having trouble delegating to your team, return back to this basic level.

Talk to the members of your team and see if they have room to take on additional work and what areas they would like more responsibility. While this may not always be possible, try to fit the task you give them to grow with their talents and interests. People grow best when they are vested in the work they do. One way to delegate, recommended by Laura Boyd Brown is to delegate things you already know how to do. Additionally, she recommends, do not delegate things you don’t like to do.

Provide a good framework when delegating so that it is a success for both you and the person to whom you delegate. Be sure to set up the vision and articulate the “why” of what they are being assigned to accomplish. If you are looking for a certain way that success will be measured, be specific about what that endpoint looks like. As Brené Brown states in her book Dare to Lead, it is critical that you “paint a picture of done” and define the must-haves so that both you and your employees are in alignment with the end goal. Alternatively, if you have a more experienced team member and wish to leave things open-ended, be ready to accept results that are not what you might have expected.

Remember that when you delegate you are building cross-training skills within your team. If it is something new, you might have them shadow you as you complete the task, followed by allowing them to do it with guidance, and then finally alone. While training the new task (or anything you delegate for that matter), always include a feedback loop so that the person you delegate can ask questions as they reach new levels of ability. If the task has a deadline, be sure to articulate it and even schedule these interactions at key points along the way.

At first, delegation may lead to additional work as you guide your report in a new skill or task, but the net result of good delegation is that it will grow additional trust between you and the person to whom you delegate. Each time you delegate, you will find you require less and less work on your side.

Learn to let go and lead

Ashkenus and Chandler note “One of the most difficult transitions for leaders to make is the shift from doing to leading.” Craven adds that if you are anxious about this move, you are not alone. He writes, “There’s a psychological shift to focus your attention on areas that are vital to the company and become less involved in the daily tasks. That shift can bring about fear. ‘What will happen if I let go and delegate that responsibility? Will I be able to make the transition to my new role and focus? Will I be seen as less vital if I delegate certain tasks? No one can do it as good as me.”’

But whenever you feel this way, remember the leaders in your organization will measure you not by what you do alone, but by what your team accomplishes together. Growing new leaders is a key task of any leader in an organization. By delegating tasks, you are not only developing a better team, but you are also empowering your staff to grow, thereby increasing the group knowledge of your organization.

Additionally, handing off responsibility allows you to grow yourself and have time to have work delegated to your by your own boss. If you are constantly giving off the impression that you are too busy to accomplish your own work, it is unlikely that you will be given work to grow in the value that you provide to your organization.

Take a few minutes today to think about your delegation style. Is time to reframe the way you think about delegation? Is it time to think about developing your team and growing yourself as well? Learning to delegate is one of the most important tasks you can learn as a leader.


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