The Delicate Dance of Delegation

Very few leaders you meet are going to tell you they are bored.  More often than not, one of the biggest tactical challenge leaders face is time – time management, scarcity of time, time to get things done.  Leaders feel overwhelmed, overworked, and often complain they have too much on their to do list.  Time is precious and there isn’t enough of it to go around.  At the same time, they are surrounded by talented team members many of whom are eager to grow and develop – to take more on.

It seems like a match-made-in-heaven.  Overworked leader meets talented employee, leader delegates responsibilities to employee, employee feels increased confidence in taking on something new, both reap benefits.  

But the truth is, many leaders don’t delegate.  Why?  Well, for some, delegating means a loss of control – they’ve gotten burned in the past or they lack confidence that the person they are delegating to will be successful.  They think “no one can do it the way I can,” or “it’s just faster and easier for me to do it than to explain it to someone else.”  Still others might be worried that someone will complete a task better than they can and show-them-up.  At the other end of the spectrum are leaders who delegate indiscriminately using it as a way to get rid of less desirable activities or tasks they don’t want to do.

How can leaders approach delegation thoughtfully so it can benefit their employees and them?

  • Consider the task and the person – Delegation starts with a careful contemplation of both the task and the person.  How complicated is the effort?  How desirable?  Is this something that can leverage existing talents of my employee?  Or stretch them?  Or am I dumping something I don’t want to do?  By considering the appropriateness of the assignment and balancing that with the development needs or strengths of an employee, leaders can set themselves, and their employees, up for success.
  • Empower them – This is an often-missed step of delegation or something that is seen as an output of delegation.  The truth is empowerment needs to come first.  When a leader empowers their employee before they delegate, they let them know that they have confidence in them to be successful.  They send the message that they have the authority to make a decision, obtain resources, or take the action.  A leader who empowers first, builds trust with their employee.  Empowered is how a leader wants to make an employee feel about their ability to get it done.  
  • Be clear on expectations – This step is how a leader clarifies what needs to get done.  Clear expectations are set by defining what success looks like.  At the end, what is it you anticipate will be accomplished?  Where possible, it’s best to focus on the destination but let the employee have some discretion in how they get there.  For example, you can ask them to take responsibility for leading team meetings and discuss what success looks like when those meetings go well.  But you might avoid handing them an agenda and meeting protocols.  Giving the employee the authority to approach the meetings their own way, not only encourages independence and confidence, but it might also give way to a new and innovative approach.
  • Circle back – Setting your employee up for success and then getting out of the way can give leaders more time and employees greater independence.  However, “delegate and disappear” is an ill-advised approach.  Circle back with your employee – check back in based on what you agreed upon in the expectations setting phase.  Offer support, where needed and be open and available for questions that may arise.  Be certain to acknowledge the person for their efforts.

One of the single most powerful actions a leader can take is to delegate – delegate to get things done and to expand the skills of their employees.  Delegation isn’t a mark of shame – it’s a badge of pride.  Helping leaders approach it thoughtfully can make it a positive experience for team member and leader alike.