This post is a section of our report, A Leader’s Guide to Well Being. For a copy of the whole report, email email@example.com.
Delegation is a powerful leadership skill that’s fraught with anxiety. Are you ready to let go and empower someone else, puting your success in their hands? What if you delegate crucial work to a direct report, and they don’t deliver? Or God forbid, what if they outshine you?
Delegation is so much more than just giving work to others. It’s a complex blend of skills, emotional capacity, and mindset. Done well, it’s a tool to help others grow while allowing you take on higher value work. It can also improve your well being by reducing your workload. The key is to delegate in a way that doesn’t feel like jumping off a cliff. Here’s how to do it.
Before you delegate, think about…
Who. Slow down and consider in depth the person you are delegating to. What are their strengths and areas of development? How motivated are they? How ready are they for the work you have in mind? What are their career aspirations?
What. Next, clearly define what you are delegating. Establish non-negotiable outcomes: you want to provide freedom within parameters. And typically, you shouldn’t define how the work will be done. Leave that to them.
When. Is there anything important about the timing of when you delegate a piece of work? Consider the life cycle of the business, workloads, acquisitions, and other moving parts. Also, get clear on the deadline for completing the work so you can communicate that up front.
During the conversation…
Share the why. Why is this work important? It may be obvious to you, but not to them. You’re closer to the business strategy. A good “why” provides crucial motivation. “This initiative is critical. It will help make the new product launch successful.”
Provide context and resources. Help your direct report understand their role and make sure they have everything they need.
Document the conversation. Capture the conversation in an email or document, and share it with them. This may feel awkward, especially if you’re giving a large, ambiguous project to a senior leader under you. But you can’t overcommunicate at this stage. Ask if they have questions.
Be clear on how informed you want to be. Staying informed is not the same as micromanaging. Be explicit about how much and when you need to be kept in the loop. Explain how you’ll be using that information to do your job, and to provide air cover.
After you delegate…
Take deep breaths. Self-manage so you’re not tempted to jump in and take over what they’re doing. Remember, your role now is to keep the ball in their hands, and help them succeed.
Provide coaching. As the work progresses, occasionally ask questions and provide guidance and support. “How’s it going?” “What challenges are you facing?” “What are your next steps?” “You might consider trying X…” Your skilled coaching can help them solve their own problems and shine light on the best path forward.
Share feedback. Your candid feedback will reinforce their success and help them course-correct. If you’re tempted to micromanage or yank the project back, instead empower them to do better on their own.
Delegation is tough to master. And even with skillful delegation, once in a while your worst fears may materialize. Your direct report will fail spectacularly. If that happens—as no doubt has happened in your career once or twice—support them in learning everything they can from it. But most often, the investment in delegation will yield fruit for years to come.
Our favorite resources
- Managers Must Delegate Effectively to Develop Employees: Planning can minimize poor performance (Sam Lloyd, SHRM)
- To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well (Jesse Sostrin, HBR)
- Time Management Tips: Help Others Help You (Eric Nitzberg, Sierra Leadership Blog)
- Feedback: A Recipe for Improvement (Eric Nitzberg, Sierra Leadership Blog)