The Art of Delegation
By Peter L DeHaan
decades ago, as a first-time manager, I was green and had much to
learn. Management had looked easy when viewed from
the outside. Many times had I assured myself that,
given the opportunity to lead, I would never make the same seemingly
dim-witted, hasty, or unwise blunders that I had witnessed or been
subjected to. Yes, I would direct my future staff
and conduct myself with enlightenment and common sense, never
forgetting the negative examples I had witnessed over the years.
Quite simply, I pledged to do a better job as a manager.
It was a commendable yet lofty goal; one that I found much
easier to proclaim than to perform.
walked down the hall with my boss, a man whom I respected, yet feared;
loyally loved, yet occasionally detested. Publicly
I defended him, yet privately was confounded by his seemingly
inexplicable demands and thoughtless pronouncements. He
was the source of countless frustrations while offering inadequate
praise and encouragement. He had just given me yet
one more assignment, a task that I didn’t have time to do.
protested at his directive, insisting that I already had too much on
my plate. “Don’t worry,” he assured me.
“Just delegate it.” I mentally reviewed
the capabilities and level of expertise of my charges. Although
a group of capable young technologists, none of them, I concluded,
were ready for a project of this magnitude or capable of completing it
in way that would meet my boss’s high standards and exacting
there is no one I can delegate it to,” I objected plaintively.
you want to know the secret of delegation?” he inquired.
There was a twinkle in his eye. I moved
closer and held my breath, expecting the secret of managerial nirvana.
My expecting eyes were all the encouragement he needed to
continue. “It’s simple,” he instructed,
“Just look for your busiest guy and give the project to him!”
I was dumbfounded at the seemingly ridiculousness and unsound
nature of his great “insight.” Wisely, I said
nothing and he continued. “You see, the busiest
guy is the guy who gets things done; that is always who you want to
I was seething, but outwardly I kept quiet, giving a comprehending
look, a respectful nod, and a faint smile. His
deputation of me and dissemination of knowledge now complete, he
strode down the hallway to his next victim, while I gratefully ducted
into my office and closed the door.
air of acumen angered me on multiple levels. First,
I had yet another project to attend to. Second, it
was illogical and unfair; delegating to the busiest employee would
only serve to make them more busy, setting them up to be the leading
candidate for the next project. Lastly, and on a
grander level, I realized that as the busiest of those under his
command, I was, and would forever be, his “go to guy.”
had to be a better way. It took a while, some
investigative reading, and a lot of trial and error, but I eventually
came to understand the art of delegating. Delegation
is something all managers need to do. Unfortunately
it is easier said than done. Many who attempt it
are unhappy with the results, often accepting sub-par outcomes or
completely giving up. Sadly, successful delegation
requires an initial investment of time, often more time than for you
to do the work yourself. If that is the case, why
bother? Quite simply because once you have
taught your employees on how to receive and complete delegated tasks,
you can realize a huge savings of time as you empower them, allowing
them to grow as individuals and to contribute to your organization’s
success. As such, delegation is well worth the
extra effort to do it right. A five step procedure
paves the way to successful delegation.
first step is to select the right people. A person
who has proven themselves in small things can be given greater
responsibilities with increased latitude. However,
until they have proven their ability to responsibly and effectively
handle assignments, the scope of their tasks must be kept small and
somewhat trivial. For example, if they can’t
arrive at work on time, is there any reason to assume they can
accomplish something more challenging? To give
unproven employees a chance to substantiate themselves, start with
small assignments (yes, the first one might be to arrive on time) such
as sorting mail, stuffing envelopes, or making copies. Next,
they can graduate to placing an office supply order (you select the
items and quantities, they call it in), or processing UPS shipments.
Each time they successfully complete a delegated assignment,
they can be rewarded with additional responsibilities; each time they
fail to properly or timely complete a task, they must be confronted.
All employees should be trained to handle delegated
projects at a basic level. If they are unable to
handle even the most basic task, you should seriously ask yourself why
you are still employing them. Some employees will
advance to assignments of medium difficulty, while a few will be
superstars, able to work independently and largely unsupervised.
Therefore, match the task to the employee based on their
the correct employee has been selected, ensure they have the proper
tools and knowledge to do the job. If the work
requires a computer, is one available for them? If
it requires a program, do they know how to use it? Next,
consider whether they have the background knowledge to complete the
project. It is easy to assume that key details are
common knowledge or to oversimplify a project. Often,
an employee needs instruction or training before they can successfully
navigate an assignment. Not only do you need to
ensure they have been given this information, but also to provide it
in the ideal format for them. Some people learn
best in written form, others want to be shown, and some need to do it;
occasionally a combination is appropriate. Regardless,
asking an employee to embark on a project without the proper resources
is setting them up for failure.
give them a clear timetable for completion. Saying
that a project is “urgent” means different things to different
people. Saying “when you have time” can
likewise be misinterpreted. When giving a deadline,
you cannot be too specific. Examples include, “I
require your written overview on my desk every Monday by 5 p.m.”, or
“I need your preliminary work by the end of the day on Thursday, the
– and this is the hard part – hold them accountable. Follow-up
needs to be consistent and expected; let them know ahead of time that
you will be checking on their progress. Also assure
them that you are available for questions. If they
do unsatisfactory work or miss a deadline, there must be a reaction.
This could be merely asking them to explain what happened.
Perhaps, despite your best efforts, instructions were
incomplete or training was insufficient; then shoulder the blame
yourself and correct the oversight. Sometimes, they
need to be made aware of the ramifications: “Because you did not
complete this on time, we lost the client, which will cost us X
hundred dollars.” If you correctly follow step
one (select the right people and allow them to prove themselves) only
in the rarest of cases will disciplinary action be required or even
appropriate. The story is told of a loyal, responsible, and trusted
employee who made an error costing his company $330,000 dollars.
He submitted his resignation. “What!”
his manager exclaimed, “You can’t quit now; we just invested a
third of a million dollars in your training!” What
confidence and assuredness this must have instilled in that employee.
as they prove themselves in small things, begin giving them bigger and
more important assignments. Now you can then begin
to phase out much of your effort in the “accountability” step.
Yes, they still need to be held accountable, but it gradually
becomes ancillary to the process of delegation, instead of integral to
you follow these steps consistently, all employees will become better
at responding to delegation; some employees will even advance to the
point of self-determination, where you no longer need to assign things
to them, they take the initiative to do what needs to be done without
your input or direction. This is delegation at its
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