You have way too much to do, you’re buried in work, and it seems there’s no way out from under it all. But there is: delegation. Yes, yes, you know it’s important to do and you know it will save you time and help others develop new skills. So why aren’t you doing it?
What the Experts Say Delegation is a critical skill. “Your most important task as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that the world doesn’t go to hell if you take a day off,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and author of What Were They Thinking?: Unconventional Wisdom About Management. Delegation benefits managers, direct reports, and organizations. Yet it remains one of the most underutilized and underdeveloped management capabilities. A 2007 study on time management found that close to half of the 332 companies surveyed were concerned about their employees’ delegation skills. At the same time, only 28% of those companies offered any training on the topic. “Most people will tell you they are too busy to delegate — that it’s more efficient for them to just do it themselves,” says Carol Walker, the president of Prepared to Lead, a consulting firm that focuses on developing young leaders. But both Walker and Pfeffer agree that it’s time to drop the excuses. Here’s how.
Watch for warning signs You may not realize that you’re unnecessarily hoarding work. There are warning signs, however. “A classic sign of insufficient delegation is that you are working long hours and feel totally indispensable, while your staff isn’t terribly energized and keeps strangely regular hours,” says Walker. You may also feel that your team doesn’t take ownership over projects and that you’re the only one that cares. If they use phrases like, “I’m happy to help you with this,” it may be an indication that you’re doling out tasks, not handing over responsibility.
Understand why you’re not delegating There are plenty of reasons why managers don’t delegate. Some are perfectionists who feel it’s easier to do everything themselves, or that their work is better than others’. Pfeffer calls this “self-enhancement bias.” Some believe that passing on work will detract from their own importance, while others lack self-confidence and don’t want to be upstaged by their subordinates. No matter how self-aware you are, don’t assume that you’re immune to these biases, Pfeffer advises. Instead, you need to proactively ask yourself what you’re going to do to counterbalance them. Walker notes that letting go of these misconceptions can be extremely difficult and often organizational culture doesn’t help. “Giving up being ‘the go-to expert’ takes tremendous confidence and perspective even in the healthiest environments,” she says. “It’s even more challenging in the average company, where being a good manager is seen as a ‘nice to have,’ but where producing the core deliverable is what is truly esteemed.” But accepting that you can’t do everything yourself is a critical first step to delegating.
Measure how you’re doing Once you’ve recognized what’s standing in your way, the next logical step is to adjust your behavior. In reality, however, very few people know what to change or how to change it. “If you asked most managers how they spent their day, they are not going to be able to recall it accurately,” says Pfeffer. He advises keeping a daily diary of how you spend your time. After a week, you’ll start to see patterns. “You’re likely to find that a lot of time is spent on low-leverage activities that can be delegated,” says Pfeffer.
Choose the right people
Some managers fear delegation because they’ve been burned in the past. It’s important that you pass on work to people who have the necessary skills and are motivated to get the job done right. Ideally, you should be able to delegate some form of work to everyone on your team. If you push work as far down the hierarchy as possible, you will free up time and help all your staff members grow.
Integrate delegation into what you already do Delegation shouldn’t be yet another task. Make it part of your process for creating staff development plans. Discuss which types of projects and tasks you will pass on to them so that they can build the skills they need. “Make sure it’s written down as part of their performance goals and discuss how you will be mutually accountable for making it happen,” says Walker. Then create a cheat sheet that lists each person’s development plan and put it somewhere visible. “This should help to spur your thinking about opportunities to delegate as they arise normally in your work. And the assignment will be welcomed because the employee understands clearly how it fits into the development plan,” says Walker.
Ask others to hold you accountable Give your direct reports permission to call you out when you haven’t delegated something you should. Remember that it’s never easy to give your boss feedback, so be crystal clear that you are open to and expect this kind of input. Also, let them know that they’re responsible for their own growth and if they see a project they want to take on, they should ask for it.
Really let go After you delegate, your job as a manager is to observe and support your direct reports, not dictate what they do. “It’s not about making the decisions for them. Develop their critical thinking skills so they become better at intervening in their own situations,” Pfeffer says. Give your employees space. “If you want people to learn, you have to permit them to make mistakes and figure out how to correct them,” says Pfeffer. Micromanaging defeats the whole purpose. Be careful though. It’s possible to be too hands off. “While you don’t want to tell people how to do the job, you must be in a position to evaluate their performance and development,” says Walker. Don’t walk away from a task you’ve delegated. Stay involved but let your employee lead the way.
Learn from experience Once you’ve started delegating more, pay attention to the results, and learn from your mistakes. Ask yourself how you can tweak your approach. Can you delegate more involved tasks? Should you give your direct reports more freedom? Do you need to monitor progress more closely? Be patient with yourself while you practice. “You’re going from an ‘I’m going to do everything because I know better than everyone’ mindset to ‘I’m going to let people learn’ mindset,” says Pfeffer. It may take time, but the payoff is great.
Principles to Remember
Take note if you’re overwhelmed and your team members don’t seem to have enough to do — it’s a warning sign
Keep a visual reminder of your team’s development goals so you can easily identify opportunities to delegate
Ask your direct reports to call you out when you haven’t delegated enough
Assume that you aren’t biased about other people’s performance
Give someone else responsibility for something and then micromanage the task to death
Be impatient — practice and learn from your mistakes
Case Study #1: Hire people you can delegate to Chloe Drew wasn’t always good at delegation. Having worked on political campaigns where resources were hard to come by, her instinct was always to do everything herself. But now, as the executive director of a growing non-profit organization, she’s come to appreciate how much she must rely on others to get work done. “I can’t be integral to everything we do. I need to be replaceable,” she says.
When hiring, Chloe specifically looks for people who are ready to take ownership from their first day on the job. “I’m trying to create a team of mini-entrepreneurs,” she says. Chloe recently asked a new hire, who has deep experience with learning and development programs in financial services, to run her organization’s leadership institute. “She’s responsible for building it as if it were a separate business,” Chloe explains. “I still want to be in the loop because I have to answer to the board on the project, but I trust her to run with it.” Although delegation didn’t come to Chloe naturally, she has learned to let go. “It’s better for the health of the organization if I don’t swoop in and try to prevent mistakes,” she says. That’s the only way she can get what she needs from her team members, including her newest employee. “I hired her for her skills and expertise. And that increases my chances of delegating with ease,” she explains.
Case Study #2: Make it a win-win-win Russell Sy, a managing director at a company that develops and manages business parks in the United Arab Emirates, learned how to delegate effectively from watching others. “I am fortunate to have a top-notch direct supervisor,” he says. “Constantly observing her delegate, motivate, and manage for results has taught me a lot.” But, like most managers, Russell has had both positive and negative experiences with delegation.
In a previous role, he was assigned to lead a newly formed division. The CEO had combined five separate functions and asked Russell to ensure the integration went smoothly and saved the company money. Right off, he met with the five department heads to brainstorm how they would meet the CEO’s mandate. He delegated several projects to each leader. Within a few weeks, he saw that one of the departments was falling behind and quickly assessed that the department head was the obstacle. The leader was unhappy with the integration and thought it diminished his power so he refused to cooperate. Eventually, Russell had to replace him. “I learned from this failure that it is important to delegate to someone who is genuinely on board,” he says.
Now Russell looks for delegation opportunities that will benefit him, the direct report, and the organization. For example, when his company’s parent group recently asked for a review of the business, he asked a new hire to prepare the information packet because he felt it was a great way to orient the employee. Also, “having a fresh pair of eyes look at our business uncovered a few blind spots,” he says. Russell realizes trusting a newcomer with such an important task was perhaps a gamble. But he felt the risk could be mitigated by “instructions, open lines of communication for questions and comments, and regular checkpoints.”