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How to Delegate Work and Why It’s Important for Leaders

January 27, 2021

DDI Team

in BLOG

Delegation is critical for effective leadership. What can companies do to teach their leaders how to delegate work?


The best leaders are masters at delegation. Why? They know how to empower their teams to get work done. But it’s not only about getting work done or knowing how to share tasks in the best way. It’s also about creating an environment where employees are proud of their work and can call it their own. These are the critical pieces to learning how to delegate work effectively.

But what is delegating and why should leaders do it? What can hold leaders back from delegating? And what can companies do to teach their leaders how to delegate work? We’ll cover these questions and more in this post.


What Is Delegating?

In short, delegating is allocating the right work to the right people. How to delegate work is both about sharing a task and decision-making responsibilities to increase others’ commitment, accelerate results, and build capability.

The delegating leadership style, which is one of the four leadership styles covered in the situational leadership model, is all about managers sharing authority and responsibility with their employees.


What Holds Leaders Back from Delegating?

It might seem like this question has an obvious answer: Leaders can’t possibly do all the work themselves. That’s why they have a team to complete it.

However, many leaders are reluctant to delegate, especially if they’re new to their role. What holds leaders back from delegating can be a whole host of things. In some cases, they may be leading a team of people who were formerly their peers, and they feel uncomfortable telling their friends what to do.

In other cases, they may simply be used to being the team workhorse. Many leaders are promoted to their roles because they are high performers. They are willing to take on any job and always help out a team member. As a result, they feel like they are shirking their responsibility by passing the work to someone else.

They may also simply not trust their team. High-performing leaders can sometimes be perfectionists who struggle to let go of operational-level tasks so they can focus on the big-picture vision instead. Surprisingly, this is a common stumbling block at every level from first-time managers up to the C-suite.

This reluctance to delegate carries a steep cost. As leaders take on more work, they get overwhelmed and stressed. They may even burn out completely and quit.

At the same time, their team is likely also frustrated. They don’t feel like they’re contributing enough, nor do they have the authority to do their work as they see fit. They’ll likely end up disengaged or start polishing up their resumes for another role.


How Leaders Can Empower Others with Delegation

Leaders who know how to delegate work see beyond just getting a task done. They are empowering others to grow, learn, and do their very best work. And there are some major positive outcomes:

  • Team members are more creative and are 3.9 times more likely to produce innovative/creative outcomes.
  • Team members take more initiative and are 4.2 times more likely to go above their job description.
  • Team members perform better and are 2.2 times more likely to be considered high performers.
  • The team has higher standards and is 1.9 times more likely to have high performance standards.

Employees often feel more satisfied in their role when they have more authority, which means they’ll be less likely to leave. Most employees thrive in an environment where they have more freedom to grow. This type of environment can propel them to grow in their careers faster, which can also be highly satisfying.

Of course, there’s a risk that leaders can potentially delegate too much. How can you tell that you’re delegating too much? You might see an exhausted and confused team that may push back on assigned work. You’ll also notice that people are missing deadlines to complete work. Or they may have so many questions about their projects that they just stall out and lack all motivation to finish. If leaders start to see any of these signs appearing, they should talk to their team about their concerns and consider re-allocating projects or securing more resources.


When Should Leaders Delegate?

A big piece of effective delegation is understanding when to do it. For example, a great leader knows when to delegate tasks to an employee on the team who they notice could use a confidence boost. And a better leader knows how to delegate for opportunity. But what does that mean?

Rather than always giving the same set of superstars important projects, the team leader gives everyone on the team a chance to regularly do more challenging tasks. The leader puts lots of thought into who receives opportunities. They always think about the capabilities, development needs, motivators, and availability of each staff member when it comes to assigning tasks.

Leaders also need to consider what not to delegate. For example, they should never delegate items that are related to the core duties of a leader, such as compensation decisions or performance decisions. Nor should they ever delegate anything that legal or business regulations do not allow them to.

But that still leaves a lot of gray area. Here are a few questions you can ask when deciding whether to delegate a task.


What to Consider Before You Delegate Work

Delegation has to go beyond simply assigning a task. It has to be done thoughtfully, with the right balance of direction from the leader.

Here’s what to consider before you delegate work:

  1. What’s the desired output? What will the completed task look like? How will you judge whether it is completed well or not?
  2. What’s the importance of the task? How important is this assigned task to the team? How important is this assigned task to the company?
  3. Are you delegating authority appropriately? What key decisions will need to be made during the project? Will the person or team have the authority to make critical decisions?
  4. To whom should you delegate the work? Who has the skills to complete this work? Who has the motivation? Is there anyone who might be interested in the work that you haven’t considered before? What are the benefits to the person completing this delegated task?
  5. What’s the method of sharing work? Will you have a meeting to generate ideas or to define the task further with the person? What is the delegation process? Have clear expectations been given?
  6. How will you assess the results of the tasks you’ve delegated? How will you give feedback along the way? How will you ensure that the criteria is clear for what success looks like?

If the leader is struggling to answer these questions, then they should re-evaluate if the task should actually be delegated.


How Can Leaders Empower Employees?

While we already discussed the benefits of empowering leadership, just how can a successful leader empower employees? Well, one way is to delegate tasks effectively. But leaders should also always show respect to employees and keep the lines of communication open.

When people feel listened to, valued, and understood, they also are more likely to feel engaged and empowered to do good work, even if that means making a few mistakes along the way. Successful leaders are master delegators and masters at using Key Principles for effective communication.

But leaders will only empower employees if they are able to delegate the right tasks to the right people. What does this mean? Well, the task must of course empower, engage, and encourage the person to develop. But the task can’t be too much of a stretch where the person feels overwhelmed and fearful about it because then they may not complete it.

An effective manager can match a person’s capabilities and motivation to the appropriate task. And this shared work must also be balanced with the right amount of ownership and decision-making authority so there’s room for the person to grow and make a few mistakes without losing momentum.


What Leaders Do Wrong When Delegating

But many leaders have the best of intentions when it comes to being a successful delegator, only to be held back by themselves and subpar delegation skills. Here’s what leaders do wrong when delegating a task. And here are some ways they can learn how to delegate work better and build a team of empowered employees:

1. Leaders don’t express confidence and empower their people. Instead, by building their employees up and using esteem to close out delegation conversations, managers can build confidence in their people.

2. Leaders don’t establish a plan for monitoring and ensuring progress is made. Especially for more complicated tasks, leaders can’t send people off on their own without any direction and expect the tasks to get done. Leaders must have a conversation with the person, where both parties discuss and agree on a plan for following up to ensure progress is made.

3. Leaders only delegate administrative tasks, leaving more strategic or higher-level tasks for themselves. Team members want and need to be challenged to grow and feel satisfied in their work. Leaders must give equal opportunities to all their subordinate employees to tackle higher-level tasks to grow new skills. Leaders must also provide support to help them complete the tasks.

The bottom line? Even though delegating can be tough to get completely right, not delegating at all runs the risk of building a team of dissatisfied employees, which is a huge retention risk. Hiring leaders that don’t know how to delegate work is also a huge risk.


The Connection Between Delegation and Ownership

Ultimately, an effective leader is also good at allowing employees to feel ownership in their work. But what is ownership and what does it have to do with delegation? Ownership is when an individual is responsible for not only doing the task, but also the thinking behind it. So how can leaders help their employees to take ownership of delegated tasks? Here are three ways:

  • Leaders should encourage team members to identify the support they will need to complete tasks from the get-go.
  • Leaders should never assume the person knows the best approach to complete the task. Leaders are responsible for creating an environment where employees feel like they can ask questions about delegated tasks without feeling embarrassed or inadequate.
  • Leaders should never take back responsibility after delegating a task. They should allow the employee to complete the task, so they can start to build confidence, even if it takes the person a little bit more time to complete it. This learning along the way is so valuable for employees!

4 Cautionary Considerations for Delegation

There are also some cautionary considerations when it comes to delegating responsibility. Even a manager with high delegation skill can run into some challenges during the delegation process. But that doesn’t mean delegation shouldn’t happen at all.

1. You won’t always have perfect alignment. You’re probably going to make mistakes when it comes to assigned tasks. Leaders should embrace making mistakes, especially because there is still learning that’s happening. After all, leaders are learning more about the capability of their team.

2. You might have to develop, train, and motivate people. Who said delegation was easy? No one. Managers are going to have to put in work to teach people and then give them many opportunities to practice what they learn.

3. Delegations challenge both you and team members. See the point above. Challenges should be embraced by both parties. The team members shouldn’t be the only ones learning and developing.

4. If everyone isn’t stepping out of their comfort zones, a manager isn’t delegating tasks enough. Learning happens—and also innovation—when everyone on the team (manager included) has stretch assignments.


How HR Can Build Effective Leaders

Finally, when it comes to upping delegation skill, there are ways HR teams can help their leaders. HR teams should look for leadership development programs and courses that are proven to help managers see positive behavior change on the job. And when asking interview questions for a leadership position, HR should consider how to best get to the root of a candidate’s delegation experience to find out if they know how to delegate work well.

But ultimately, learning to let go and delegate tasks is tough. Many leaders find it helpful to shift their mindsets. Rather than thinking, “But I can do it better,” effective delegation can empower a good leader to build their own team of the right players to get the best work done.


Why Should Leaders Delegate? More Time for Leadership

When leaders learn to delegate effectively, their time is freed up and they can work on priorities key to moving your business forward. And leaders may even be able to get to items they’ve never had time for before—including development or growth activities that can really spur innovation and improve job satisfaction and engagement.

The bottom line? Delegation is a skill that can be built and practiced over time. It’s important for companies to make time to teach leaders how to delegate work. After all, it’s a skill crucial to leadership success, team success, and company success.

So, how can you teach your leaders how to delegate work well? Check out DDI’s leadership courses on delegation, including Delegating with Purpose, Delegating: Engage and Empower People, and Letting Go and Delegating More.

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