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How to Delegate: self-coaching strategies for leadership success

How do I delegate work to my staff? It's a question most managers ask at some time, often with a hint of desperation in their voices, and their reasons for the question are compelling

  • They want to be able to challenge their staff, to give them opportunities to grow, to learn more about their business or industry, to up-skill them.
  • They want to be able to free themselves from the detail of hands-on management that consumes their day, to give themselves time to lead their team.

They are usually also worried about over-burdening their staff, of applying too much pressure, so that they create dissent and build resistance.

Delegating responsibilities mean sharing the load, developing staff and allowing time for real leadership. It's a win/win solution. So why is it all so difficult?

Let's first be honest; have you asked yourself this question: "What gives me the most concern about delegating jobs to staff?"

Most managers will acknowledge their reluctance to let go, to trust their staff to do as good a job as they believe they would themselves. Many will confess that it's easier to do the job themselves than to spend time explaining. Do those responses ring true for you? Think about them again.

As a manager you do need to feel confident that the job will be done on time and to the standard you require. That's only reasonable; you are the person held accountable. However, you don't need to micro-manage everything to achieve that outcome.

Should you worry about over-burdening your staff?

Obviously there are different ways of looking at this question. Let's start with what staff say they want from work, from their workplace and their leaders. There are numerous research studies and employee surveys, confirming that people actually want to be challenged at work.

The BlessingWhite Employee Engagement report 2011 , found that employees worldwide "want to see a purpose in their work and to feel personal satisfaction in their jobs". The top drivers of job satisfaction are seen as opportunities to "do what I do best", plus career development and training.

Its definition of engagement: "an alignment of maximum job satisfaction (I like my work and do it well) with maximum job contribution (I help achieve the goals of my organisation".

This is exactly what managers are saying they want for their staff too.

How can you provide for these needs?

To be fair, staff engagement does not totally depend on the actions of the manager: individuals have to take responsibility. Nonetheless, the report has found the most effective ways for a manager to create the environment that encourages staff engagement.

From staff respondents to the survey, a manager's actions that correlate most closely with high engagement were reported as:

  • Delegates assignments effectively
  • Treats me like an individual with unique interests and needs
  • Asks for and acts on my input
  • Encourages me to use my talents
  • Provides me with regular, specific feedback on my performance
  • Recognises and rewards my achievements
  • Has built a sense of belonging on our department

Delegating, when it's done effectively, ticks every one of these points; plus, gives you time and space to be a leader.

Delegating without fear or favour

You can actually work this through for yourself. Think firstly of a job that you would really like to delegate to a staff member: perhaps it's a job you used to be responsible for until you were promoted; perhaps it's a development opportunity for that person. Now ask yourself each of these questions above.

Why are managers reluctant to delegate?

A better question might be: What stops me now from immediately delegating that job? Don't forget to include all those excuses like feeling you are the expert. Write all those ideas down the left-hand side of a large sheet of paper.

Generally managers will list things like: I'm not sure s/he has the skills to do the job; s/he doesn't have the connections to find the right information; too many responsibilities already; I get paid for the job so it's my responsibility; it's quicker for me; I know exactly how to go about it; nobody ever volunteers for these jobs, so I'll have to deal with resistance.

Why don't staff readily volunteer for jobs?

You've been a staff member yourself, so look back and think about why you didn't always volunteer enthusiastically for jobs that came up. Or, as is possible, you were one of those people who could always be relied upon to take on every additional responsibility, think about what that cost you at the time. Write down all those ideas on the right-hand side of a large sheet of paper.

Managers and staff can usually come up with a long list of similar answers to this question. And, although laziness and cynicism are often suggested, they are far outweighed by more considered and practical reasons, based on past experiences of taking on additional jobs outside their immediate area of expertise.

Did you list these ideas? Last time I did this: I didn't know how important the job was or why it had to be done; it was far bigger than I expected; I didn't get any thanks; I didn't know how to do some things and didn't know who to ask for help so I made a heap of mistakes which was embarrassing. Or ideas such as: I'd like the experience but couldn't manage the whole thing; I want to be able to complete the job my way without interference from the boss.

Each of those reasons can be matched against the manager actions list earlier, in either a positive or negative way.

Guidelines for delegating

As we've already acknowledged, most of your concerns as a manager are reasonable. So, now ask yourself this question: What do I need to know and do so that I feel confident about delegating? Write these down at the top of the centre column.

Probably you will want to brief the person on the importance of the task, the expectations of stakeholders, the standards required. You will want some progress reports, so that there are no surprises. There may even be some tips, some contacts perhaps that you could give the person. These are all planning tasks, many of which you have learned from experience and, once passed on, will spare you time in the future.

Now consider what the staff member will need to be assured of if s/he is to willingly assume responsibility for this new task. Weigh up the reasons for resistance and determine what you could put in place to allay their fears.

  1. Define and explain the purpose and importance of the job
  2. Identify the value to the organisation and to the person
  3. Explain the stakeholders involved and their expectations
  4. Provide the deadline
  5. Identify timelines for progress reports and your expectation of these occasions.
  6. Discuss concerns and possible solutions:
    • Skills needed – training? A second team-member?
    • Interest in the project?
    • Level of freedom to use initiative
    • Rationalization of current commitments
    • Clarification of new responsibilities and/or authority
    • Rewards or recognition for achievement

What indeed are your expectations for those progress reporting times? Are you planning to take-over if problems arise? Or, are you going to trust the staff member to solve them or at least to suggest some options? Will you provide feedback?

The progress report times are crucial - if you want to delegate effectively. If problems have surfaced, are you prepared to ask: "How do you think we can get around them?"

Can you leave the job to the person with whom you negotiated the job. Show your trust and respect, for their ideas and maintain your distance and objectivity as a leader.

Follow your own guidelines, the ones that you've just developed here, and you'll find you've met every top-scoring management action for engaging your staff. You'll probably soon find that staff will solve most problems before they even come to you.


BlessingWhite (2011) Employee Engagement Report 2011. Beyond the numbers: A practical approach for individuals, managers and executives. Accessed Feb 17, 2011