The shift from doing to leading is notoriously hard for all executives. Distributing tasks, relinquishing control and putting your trust in your team are all skills you can learn and practice. When I was a project and program manager, I found delegation to be one of the most valuable tools in my toolbox, but it is one that I often see being misused and usually for the same reason.

Quite simply, many people don’t understand the difference between true delegation and just telling someone to do something. 

Anyone can tell someone to do something, especially if you’ve been given a title that conveys leadership or are simply confident enough! Effective delegation on the other hand, is a skill and the difference is in the detail. 

What is delegation?

For example, if I toss a pen at someone and say, ‘Here, you take this pen’ that’s me telling them to take the pen. I haven’t told them what to do with the pen and when I would like to see the results of what they’ve done with the pen. If I throw them the pen and say, ‘Here’s a pen and I would like you to write a one page letter on your life and I need that by Friday’ then that is clearly delegating. 

The difference, as I mentioned, is in the detail. The amount of detail that I gave to help the person understand what it is that I’m asking them to do, but also for myself to understand and to clarify what I need them to do so that I can remember what I’m holding them accountable to. 

This is important because the key to delegation is to understand that you are not just handing over a task, you are also handing over the authority along with the task. Who’s going to write that letter? The person I delegated it to. Who’s going to return the letter? The person I delegated it to. All authority has been granted to the person who is now responsible for the task. If I follow up on a Wednesday for something I’ve asked to be done on Friday, I’m then questioning the authority that I’ve given them.

Why delegate?

The beauty of delegation in a team environment is that it is empowering. It encourages your team to have a sense of ownership and motivates them to contribute to the greater good – or the project as a whole. Delegation done well benefits you as a manager or leader and your team, and is an often overlooked facet of development for existing employees. The Work Institutes Retention Report for 2020 showed that 20% of employees left their roles because of lack of career development opportunities. That’s been the number one preventable reason for lack of retention for the past decade! Employees who are supported in their growth and advancement are more likely to stay and effectively delegating tasks and responsibilities is an important part of career development. 

How to delegate

The only way delegation can efficiently take place is if you have clearly explained the task and your expectations. You have to provide the necessary details and ensure that those details are understood by both yourself, the sender, and by the person being delegated to… because we all know what happens in communication. The famous quote by playwright George Bernard Shaw sums it up: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

You need to convey three key pieces of information so that everyone understands:

  • What needs to be done
  • How it needs to be done
  • When it needs to be done by. 

(That deadline is very important in keeping everyone on track and accountable.)

If you’re leading a team, I encourage you to think about how you delegate. Consider the level of detail that you’re providing and the level of detail that you’re getting back. Remember, your delegation should be a two-way conversation – confirm with the team member that they have understood. Do they have any questions or need further clarification? 

Delegation decisions

Not every task is suited to delegation. As a leader or manager you will need to decide which tasks genuinely require your time. When deciding whether to delegate or not, consider:

  • Is this a repeatable task that will need doing again in the future?
  • Is it crucial for long-term success (recruitment, strategy or key relationships) and needs your involvement?
  • Do you have enough time to delegate and follow-up properly?
  • Is this an opportunity to upskill a member of your team?
  • What are the risks if the task is not complete to the level or timeline required? 

Reality check

They are not you – and no one is going to do the work exactly as you would have. Focus on the outcome, not the process. 

Start small – build trust and confidence in your team with small tasks that offer opportunities to learn. 

Check-in and check yourself – your scrutiny might derail your delegatee. You’re there to help if they need it, not to hover like an anxious parent. 

Feedback and fixes – once the task is completed, review the outcome with your team member. If there are any issues they should be fixed by the person responsible. Resist the temptation to take the task and fix it yourself. 

A small amount of time invested in effective delegation and follow-up will improve the performance and motivation of your team and you’ll have more time to focus on your priorities. That’s what we call a win-win.