Learning to delegate

Overcoming fears around delegating could significantly improve yours and your team’s performance
by Fred Heritage


Delegating is an important leadership skill that can benefit you and your team. However, deciding which tasks to delegate, and to whom, can leave some managers and team leaders feeling embarrassed and overwhelmed. To avoid making demands of colleagues, managers may be tempted to carry on trying to do everything themselves. Although this may alleviate some social awkwardness in the short term, over the long term your performance, as well as that of your team, will suffer.

But effective delegation isn’t only about plucking up the courage to ask your colleagues to complete tasks. It’s also about understanding what can, and should, be handed over. In an article for Harvard Business Review, communications coach and author Deborah Grayson Riegel says that team leaders often struggle to know how to delegate responsibility rather than just tasks, or “what responsibilities could serve as a learning and growth opportunity for others below them”.

Know your resistance

She adds that team leaders “need to understand their own resistance” to delegate effectively. Reluctance to delegate could be rooted in not wanting to give up control, for example, or not wanting to look like they’re slacking.  

Riegel draws on the work of Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey who, in their book Immunity to change: how to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization, suggest that when attempting to delegate, managers should identify first their goal, then the behaviours that are “stalling their effort”. They should “ask themselves how they’d feel if they did the opposite”, for example, if they do the task they initially thought of delegating, what would be the consequence? Would something more important be overlooked?

Riegel provides the following example from Kegan and Lahey’s research: “A senior sales leader might want to delegate follow-up calls to big customers to his sales team, but realises that he hasn’t updated his notes in the CRM database … What if updating the CRM database in a timely manner meant pushing off other, more important activities? What if not calling customers meant that they felt ignored or disrespected, and they took their business elsewhere?”

Six tips for effective delegating

In an article for The Balance Careers, management consultant and author Susan Heathfield gives her tips for those learning to delegate:

  1. When delegating work, give the person ownership of the whole task
    “If you can't give the employee a whole task, make sure they understand the overall purpose of the project,” says Heathfield. Employees perform better if they understand their contribution and therefore importance to the bigger picture, she says.
  2. Make sure employees understand exactly what you want from them
    “Ask questions, watch the work performed, or have the employee give you feedback to make sure that your instructions were understood”, says Heathfield.
  3. Paint a picture for them
    Employees would rather you share exactly what you are looking for (if you have a picture in your mind) rather than keep them guessing.
  4. Confirm the timeline of the project and important deadlines
    Your team needs to know the feedback you need and when, without causing you to micromanage them.
  5. Explain how you’ll measure successful outcomes
    Employees will be more likely to succeed when you share with them how you will measure successful outcomes.
  6. Determine in advance how you will thank and reward staff for a job well done
    “Recognition reinforces the employee's positive self-image, sense of accomplishment, and belief that he or she is a key contributor,” says Heathfield.
Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email fred.heritage@wardour.co.uk.
Published: 29 Apr 2022
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Career Development
  • teamwork
  • Productivity
  • delegation
  • delegate

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