Last reviewed 11 April 2018

Being able to delegate effectively is a key leadership skill. Business consultant, coach and trainer Jude Tavanyar tells us why powerful delegation can be viewed as one of the most critical competences of sustainable, productive leadership.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? If, as a leader at any level of business, you don’t have the time or resources to cover the work that is needed within your division, it makes complete sense to pass it on to a team member or colleague who does. Yet, all the evidence suggests that delegation is one of those areas of managerial ability in which many leaders feel under-skilled and inexperienced, or even avoid delegating assignments or tasks altogether.

Reasons why delegation is overlooked (or deliberately avoided)

There are a number of reasons why delegation is so often missing from the skillset of today’s leaders, at all levels of organisational life.

Typically, leaders who avoid delegation might express any of the following reasons for doing so.

  • Lack of resource and staff. “There’s no one to delegate to — everyone’s overstretched, so it just isn’t an option. I’m stuck with this ridiculous workload and I’ll just have to get on with it, however much time it takes.”

  • Corporate culture. “If I pass on any of my work, it’ll make me look like I’m not up to it. Everyone else seems to cope, and I don’t want to appear weak or look as though I don’t fit in, by asking for help.”

  • Lack of acknowledgment by the boss. “X just doesn’t notice or appreciate the work I’m doing. If I keep going with my current work level and even take on more, maybe he or she will see what I’m capable of.”

  • Ambition and the wish for future reward. “If I pass on projects, no one will understand how talented I am and my potential to outshine the others. I need to make sure no one else steals the limelight, and keep control of my workload before anyone gets their hands on it.”

If you have ever heard yourself offering any of the above excuses for not delegating, the chances are you are deceiving yourself, at least to some extent. Why? Put simply, while there may be a shortage of time and energy among your staff, the team in which there is absolutely no potential to pass on a task, or even a whole project, is rare indeed.

Similarly, citing a stifling corporate culture where seeking another’s temporary input into, or wholesale adoption of, an assignment through delegation is viewed as an indication of individual weakness, is also a poor argument when we consider that organisations change (and thrive through changing) when staff at all levels constantly challenge, review and thus recalibrate the most important principles and practices enshrined within its culture. Organisations whose ways of working are stuck in the past need to be challenged in order to grow and develop, even if presenting that challenge to the corporate status quo may at times be painful.

Finally, the last two reasons listed here — keeping going with an already unrealistic workload, even extending it further to ensure that we receive acknowledgment, or increase promotion prospects — share the almost certain outcome of serious individual demotivation and exhaustion if they continue unchecked for any length of time. The additional problem here is that as people become increasingly determined to keep on top of their work and even add to it, no matter what the pressures on their time and energy, they are also more likely to lose perspective on what they are doing, and not notice when they become over-fatigued, perform less effectively, and become cut-off or isolated from others who might help.

Team leadership strength

Refusing to delegate work to others is not a practical option for the powerful, effective team leader. This is not only because, as suggested above, lack of delegation can lead to serious physical and mental ill health in the longer term for individuals struggling alone, but also because it can damage the performance, co-operation and motivation of entire teams.

The fact is that delegation is developmental — done well, it can transform the motivation and commitment of team members, and of course, may enhance their career potential and earning power, as well as that of the team leader doing the delegating. The reasons why this is to include the fact that delegation is an indication of trust, of belief in another’s abilities and talents. It also provides an opportunity to learn new skills and gain important experience while being offered support and input as required.

Effective delegation skills and practice

  • Delegate from the start. Make clear to your team that delegation is part of your style as a manager and that you consider it good leadership to develop your team through passing on work assignments and opportunities as required. In this light, delegation becomes a routine developmental practice, not — for example — a last minute and potentially uncomfortable conversation when time has run out on you or your workload is threatening to explode, and you are looking for favours in a hurry. While this kind of delegation may sometimes occur in an emergency, it’s not the sort you are looking to practise as a matter of course.

  • Get to know your team — their interests, ambitions, talents, motivations, challenges. It may seem obvious, but many leaders forget the management “human factor” when working under stress. By doing this, you will discover what excites team members, what they would like to do more of and conversely the areas where they might feel bored and under-utilised.

  • Distinguish between routine tasks and developmental assignments. While delegation is not always about taking on an exciting project to improve the CV, an effective delegator does need to avoid only passing on the boring jobs that he or she does not enjoy.

  • Show trust. Show your trust when delegating, be clear about the possible rewards, check with each person their level of comfort and experience with the assignment and match the support you bring accordingly.

  • Vary your delegation style. Some people enjoy the freedom of inheriting a project and being able to run with it alone. Others need more consistent, detailed input along the way. That does not necessarily make the “go it alone” type more competent than the “detail-seeker” — it’s a matter of personality preference and should be seen as such. Ask your team how they like to be delegated to, vary your style accordingly, and you will already have taken a significant step towards enlightened, effective and developmental delegation.