Many managers I work with have challenges when it comes to delegation, writes executive coach James Sweetman but, for most of them, the real issue is relinquishing control. Many of us believe that if you want something done well, do it yourself.

A core tenet of management and leadership is achieving through others and this cannot be done without effective delegation.

What does delegation mean to you?

For some managers, the challenge with delegation starts with how they define the word. (In the same way many of my interview skills coaching clients associate a job interview with an interrogation, as opposed to a business meeting.)

Recently, a manager said to me that she couldn’t delegate. After some discussion, when we looked at the mechanics of workflow, supervision and development of her team, she replaced the word ‘delegation’ with the phrase ‘empowering her team’.

She was excited about ‘empowering her team’, the problem was the meaning she had placed on the word ‘delegation’.

When we started out in our careers we were the ones that were delegated to. This is something we are used to, it is established within our comfort zones.

When we are stressed and under pressure, we tend to gravitate to our comfort zones because this is where we feel in control. At least initially, the skill of delegation resides outside your comfort zone which means you will feel self-consciousness when practising that skill (just like learning to drive a car!)

What should I delegate?

Most of us don’t operate on an hourly rate of pay basis, but one of the ways to determine what you could, or maybe should delegate, is to focus on where you can add the most value.

For example, as a manager you know it is not an effective use of your time to spend 20 minutes photocopying. If there is a junior person in the office, to delegate the task to them, freeing you up to add value that is congruent with your salary level.

The tasks that only you can do should be the ones that get your time and attention. Of course, let’s not confuse delegation with laziness or ineptitude. Some managers through incompetence, negligence or laziness ‘delegate’ everything and this will be obvious to people around them. They might think they are Richard Branson when in reality they are not adding value and are delegating to the point of being redundant.

Effective delegation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. At the heart of delegation is the ability to have a quality conversation. If regular quality 1-2-1 conversations are happening (a fundamental when it comes to people management) you have a forum for establishing a delegation process with team members.

When there is a mutual understanding of roles and a positive working relationship in place you can pose questions such as – are there areas where I need to ‘let go’ or delegate more to you? Or are there areas where I need to get more involved or provide more help to you?

When you are open to feedback you can also ask – do you ever see me doing things that I don’t need to be doing?

Modern delegation is all about ‘stewardship’. You are temporarily handing over ownership of a task.

Here are 10 practical steps to effective delegation

  1. Define the result – What is it you want to be achieved? If you don’t have a clear sense of what success looks like, how will your team member?
  2. Explain why the result or task is important, how it fits in with the bigger picture and the consequences of inaction. It might be obvious to you, but it may not be to them.
  3. Define the tasks – What are the tasks or actions that need to happen (and sometimes in what sequence) for the result to be achieved. This is only applicable for bigger tasks where the work needs to be chunked down into more bite-size pieces.
  4. Define the resources. What are the materials/supplies that need to be used (where can they be found?) What is the time and energy commitment?
  5. What is the deadline? When does the result need to be achieved? What are the milestones or intermediate deadlines on larger tasks?
  6. Delegate to somebody who has demonstrated competence (unless the task is part of an employee’s development plan.) Your delegation strategy should be tailored to fit the unique needs of your team. Of course, as a manager, you have to know your team’s areas of strengths and areas for development.
  7. Check for understanding. Ask your team member to explain their understanding of the result and the tasks. Saying ‘come to me if you have any problems or questions’ may suffice in some situations but not all. If the staff member is unsure as to what to do, or what success looks like, they may not even know how to frame a question.If the staff member cannot talk you through how they intend to approach a bigger task, it is unlikely they will be able to deliver. Seeking clarity up front means both parties have more certainty. 
  8. Be clear as to how progress will be measured. The difference between delegation and abdication is the measurement of results.
  9. Clarify priorities. Ensure the person being delegated to knows the priority of the result and the tasks. You, therefore, need to have an understanding of their workload.
  10. When the task has been completed recognise the efforts made and ask the employee about their learning from the task.

Most of us waste some of our precious time on activities that we don’t need to do. Dropping these or maybe delegating them is a definition of working smarter.

By delegating these activities to the staff you will simultaneously free up some of your own time (for more strategic work) while helping to develop them by broadening their role. 

Author: James Sweetman is a motivational speaker and executive coach focusing on leadership, presentation skills and personal development. He is also the author of five books. More information is available at