Avoid These Mistakes of Effective Delegation: A Cautionary Tale for First-Time Leaders
April 6, 2022
Effective delegation can be a tricky new skill for first-time managers. Learn the top delegation mistakes to avoid and how to become a better delegator.
If getting the most out of your team is a top priority, then you could argue that one of the most important leadership skills is effective delegation.
I’ve been working with and coaching new leaders for nearly 20 years. Time and again, the biggest challenge for a new leader is shifting their focus from their own work to the efforts, energy, engagement, and productivity of their team members.
Indeed, one of the primary reasons employees leave their company is because they don’t see opportunities for professional development. Poor delegation and under-delegation is a leading reason that employees lack these development opportunities.
Several years ago, I worked with a leader named Keith who was one of the finest delegators I’ve ever met. He led a team of managers who collectively managed hundreds of contractors who were on-site for the annual planned maintenance outage. Delegating was a matter of necessity for Keith. There was simply too much activity for him to personally be involved in all of it.
When managing his workload, he would ask himself two questions:
- If someone else can and should be doing this important task, what barriers do I need to remove so they can do it?
- Am I reluctant to delegate responsibility because of my own emotional attachment or because of judicious business prudence?
Keith was a level-headed leader who typically had the right answer to these questions. His egoless delegation process was based on trust and he rarely caught himself or an employee out of their depth.
What Stops Leaders from Delegating?
So why don’t all leaders work as effectively as Keith? The answer is both simple and complex. Many first-time leaders don’t have clear expectations about what work they should be doing. They also don’t know what work should be delegated.
Without clear expectations, any high performer will do what they think creates value. They often go back to what they know will generate an immediate return on their investment of time and energy—doing the work themselves. New leaders may not naturally identify opportunities to delegate responsibility to team members.
Experienced leaders may better understand what’s expected of them, but may be reluctant to delegate because they enjoy doing the work and controlling the outcome. Or they may not trust that their team has the skills, knowledge, or ability to get the job done right.
I’ve also worked with leaders who are afraid of losing their technical skills and becoming irrelevant as a leader. This concern may seem odd, but can be a risk for leaders who undervalue the importance of strong leadership.
Effective delegation not only sets your team up for success but also enables you to focus on rewarding, high-value leadership work.
Let’s explore four common delegation mistakes and outline what new leaders can do instead:
Delegation Mistake #1: Micromanaging Delegated Work
Probably the most common delegation mistake new leaders make is staying more involved in a delegated task than necessary. Many individuals get promoted into leadership roles because of their strong individual contributions. If new leaders don’t let go of some control, they may be at risk of becoming a micromanager, which can frustrate both the leader and the team member.
Great leaders strike a balance by having a conversation to negotiate the level of support and oversight employees need. After assigning a delegated task, ask your team member to talk you through their next steps. How will they get started? How are they feeling about the new task? When should you meet again to follow up and share progress?
If their answers to these questions are concerning, you may need to offer more oversight. If the employee is comfortable, and taking a sound approach, then you can give the team member more autonomy with the task.
Focus on delegating responsibility for the outcome rather than detailing the process for how the work should be done. With this approach, you’ll get greater buy-in and empower employees.
Delegation Mistake #2: Dumping Work on a Team Member
Years ago I worked with Richard, an experienced operations manager with a terrible habit of dumping work. His six-foot-nine-inch frame and no-nonsense leadership style meant that he didn’t always seem very approachable.
Richard’s approach to delegation was to announce a list of tasks at the weekly team meeting and look around the room for volunteers. After team members volunteered, he’d say something like, “Go and speak with marketing. They’ll get you started.” Or “I’ll forward you the email. It’s all in there.”
What was missing? Well, just about all the essential elements for a successful delegation experience.
Delegated tasks had no clear expectations of what success should look like, no timelines to set accountability, and no follow-up or coaching to ensure it went well. Richard described himself as a “hands-off” leader, which may be effective with a highly skilled, experienced team, but in most other circumstances, employees need more guidance.
Taking on a new responsibility or task for the first time often comes with some hesitancy. An effective manager needs to address this when they are delegating the task. Best practice calls for leaders to clearly outline what needs to be done to meet and also exceed expectations.
Make sure team members know what they need to know, how to find it, and who can help them. Ensure they have all the context required for success. Since some of this knowledge may be new, managers should also clarify that everything makes sense and answer any questions.
Delegation Mistake #3: Delegating the Wrong Tasks
It’s human nature to avoid doing things that make us feel uncomfortable. But that’s not an appropriate reason to delegate these tasks. Additionally, leaders should never delegate their leadership responsibilities, including activities like performance reviews, disciplinary discussions, tasks you are accountable for handling yourself, and responsibilities involving sensitive or confidential information. If in doubt, consult with your manager when delegating strategic or high-level tasks and responsibilities.
Apart from your core leadership duties, you can delegate most of your other responsibilities. Under-delegation is a more common problem than over-delegation.
The best tasks and responsibilities to delegate are those that recur regularly. When delegating these projects, you can establish parameters for success up front and pull out of day-to-day execution.
Delegation Mistake #4: Overdependence on Superstar Employees
As a leader, it’s important to ask yourself, “Why am I delegating this task or responsibility?” The answer shouldn’t be “because I dislike this tedious task.”
Delegation must work for both the leader and the employee. The right person for a task may be the one who can get it done immediately. Or it could be the person who could benefit from the new experience and professional development.
It may be easiest to delegate to a superstar employee who is highly capable and motivated. But over time, frequent delegation to superstars can cause overload and fail to prepare the rest of your team to take on new or stretch assignments. Consider leaning on your superstar when the situation is truly urgent and the consequences of failure are high, but not for the majority of delegated tasks.
Leaders of less-experienced teams often opt to do work themselves instead of setting time aside to properly coach their team members to develop skills. But with upfront coaching and regular follow-ups, employees can gain confidence and leaders can trust that tasks won’t go off track.
Leaders with highly capable, experienced team members may require a solution to keep employees engaged in work. In these situations, delegating new tasks and responsibilities to superstar employees can be motivating.
Ask These Questions to Help Delegate Work
The best leaders don’t necessarily have all the answers, but they do ask the right questions. Think about your team and try to answer these questions:
- What are your team members interested in?
- Do your team members have the capacity for new assignments?
- Can you help team members delegate or off-load work they do not enjoy to take on more interesting or fulfilling work?
- What are your team members’ professional goals and could delegated assignments help them achieve those objectives?
I recently consulted with a company that required employees to identify one part of their job they wanted to stop doing and one new responsibility they wanted to take on as part of their annual performance review. Through this innovative and equitable exercise gathering feedback about responsibilities, the company prioritized reallocating work to meet employees’ needs.
Effective Delegation Makes Teams Successful
With all of this in mind, you might feel that delegation takes more effort than it’s worth. However, the best leaders focus their attention on getting the most from their team members.
Effective delegation that is thoughtfully planned and supported through coaching, will engage and build skills and abilities. It’s an essential strategy for building and developing your team.
Learn more about how to be a successful manager in our blog: Advice for First-Time Leaders
Matthew Page-Hanify is a senior consultant with DDI. He’s also a husband, father of three teenagers, and an occasional artist.