A Guide to Delegating Tasks Effectively

One of my favorite Olympic sports to watch is track relay. The runners make blindly reaching for a baton at 20 mph while staying in their lanes look incredibly easy. In fact, what they’re doing is extremely difficult. I think of delegating in the same way. It sounds easy, and others who can do it well make it look easy, but passing the baton effectively takes a lot of trust, communication, and coordination. If you do it well, though, everyone on your team wins.

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Why People Should Delegate Tasks

Being a great leader doesn’t mean you do everything yourself. It means you’ve gotten really good at identifying who is best suited to tackle a task or project and empowering them to do so.

Of course, delegating tasks can lighten your workload, but delegating does much more than just get stuff off your plate, according to Dr. Scott Williams, professor of management at Wright State University.

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

“Delegation can also be a clear sign that you respect your subordinates’ abilities and that you trust their discretion,” Williams writes. “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 manager.”

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Within customer-facing companies, delegation can improve responsiveness to customers, Williams notes.

“The people who have the most contact with customers – whether they are external customers or internal customers – are usually the ones with the most complete information about how best to serve them,” he says.

[ictt-tweet-inline]Delegation can empower people to take action to improve customer satisfaction.[/ictt-tweet-inline]

Why People Don’t Delegate Tasks

There are some major myths and misconceptions around delegating that can make people wary of handing work to others.

They think delegating is just passing off work to someone else.

“Managers often mistake delegation for passing off work,” writes Harvey Mackay, founder of MackayMitchell Envelope Co. “So they don’t do it and they wind up wasting their time as well as the company’s time and resources.”

Delegation can be a chance to make workloads more manageable, but more than that, it can provide really valuable teaching opportunities for your employees, Mackay notes.

Delegation is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a strong leader.

They think they can do it better.

One study found that two psychological processes make people more reluctant to delegate work:

  • the self-enhancement effect, which is a manager’s tendency to evaluate a work product more highly the more involved they are in its production
  • the faith in supervision effect, which is when people have a tendency to think work performed under the control of a supervisor is better than work without as much supervision

Watch for those biases in your work. They could be a sign that you need to focus on building more trust within your team.

They’re nervous about letting go.

Letting go can be challenging, but accepting that you can’t do everything yourself is important.

“Giving up being ‘the go-to expert’ takes tremendous confidence and perspective even in the healthiest environments,” Carol Walker, the president of Prepared to Lead, a consulting firm that focuses on developing young leaders, told the Harvard Business Review.

Remind yourself that your team wants to do good work and be successful just like you do. If your employees succeed, you succeed.

“I’ve learned that people will seldom let you down if they understand that your destiny is in their hands, and vice versa,” says Mackay.

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How to Be a Great Delegator

Here are a few tips to help you delegate effectively so that your team shares the workload to make progress that benefits everyone.

1. Explain why you’re delegating

It really helps when you provide context for why you’re giving someone a responsibility.

“When you select people to delegate to, tell them why you chose them specifically, and how you hope to see this help them grow,” says Alex Cavoulacos, founder of The Muse. “Help them see each delegated task as an opportunity to take on more responsibilities or grow new skills.”

2. Provide the right instructions

Every good delegator provides basic and important information without micro-managing. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests that you delegate results rather than methods: “For example, ‘Here’s what we are doing, here’s what we’re after. I want you to get the sale,’ instead of, ‘Follow up on those leads,” Covey says.

Tell someone your goals or the milestones you hope to hit and let them tackle the problem in their own way. Don’t look for perfection or micromanage; someone else might complete a task differently than you would. As long as you get the result you’re looking for, that’s OK.

3. Provide resources and training

You’ve got to make sure the person tasked with a job or project has the tools and resources they need to be successful.

“A good training rule of thumb is “I do, we do, you do” (i.e. watch me do this, then let’s do it together, now you try),” says Cavoulacos.

Make sure that when you delegate a task, the person has the tools and skills they need to complete the task, or provide a way for them to work on those skills. For example, if you ask someone to use a specific tool they’ve never used before to complete a task, make sure there’s a plan for them to become familiar with the tool first.

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4. Delegate responsibility and authority, too

You’ve probably been in a situation where you’re tasked with something but don’t feel fully empowered to make decisions, so the work stalls, and you end up having to ask for help. As a result, the task takes more time from both the employee and the manager.

“Managers who fail to delegate responsibility in addition to specific tasks eventually find themselves reporting to their subordinates and doing some of the work, rather than vice versa,” writes Martin Zwilling, founder and CEO of Startup Professionals.

Foster an environment and culture where people feel they’re able to make decisions, ask questions and take the necessary steps to complete the work.

5. Say thank you

When someone completes a task or project you delegated, show genuine appreciation and point out specific things they did right or well.

When you make note of those specifics, you’re giving people a roadmap for what they should continue to do to be successful.

“This is the simplest step, but one of the hardest for many people to learn,” Zwilling says. “It will inspire loyalty, provide real satisfaction for work done, and become the basis for mentoring and performance reviews.”

If you delegate well, you can increase trust and commitment with your employees while improving productivity and making sure the right people are performing the tasks that best suit them.

So don’t be afraid to pass the baton. It might take some practice to become a great delegator, but if you work at it, you’ll all go farther.