A Manager’s Guide to Effective Delegation

Today, we’re going to focus on why delegation is important. But we’re not going to focus on the more obvious reasons and instead, focus on the less obvious and more important ones. 

I’m choosing to focus on these because if you truly understand and appreciate them, you will naturally be a more effective leader and manager as a result. 

So, let’s get to it.

What is delegation and why do it?

When we think about delegation, the mind can often move immediately towards the idea that we delegate in order to get rid of tasks that either we don’t want to do or that we’re too busy for. Getting help to deliver work is an important reason for delegation, but the benefits of effective delegation go far beyond this. Some of these reasons are not so obvious and are where we’ll briefly focus.

Not delegating work will hold you and others back

If you avoid delegation or aren’t very effective at it, you will not only hold yourself back from progressing, you will hold those around you back as well. 

This is because there are always going to be tasks that you’ll have completed many times and do so without too much effort. These tasks may be better suited to others who are still learning and refining their skills, so by delegating them, you are enabling others to grow. 

Ideally, your team should want to take tasks away from you, particularly those that they don’t have as much experience in and therefore, see as a good learning experience. 

Effective delegation makes you more effective at your own tasks

Not only is effective delegation good for the progression of your team, but it’s also great for your own progression too. One way that this manifests itself is that you will free up your time and headspace to focus on other tasks that lead to more learning and development for yourself. 

If you don’t delegate, you’ll find yourself in a position where you’re doing the same tasks over and over again and your learning will plateau. Even if you want to keep learning, you won’t have the time and headspace to focus on new, more challenging tasks.

Your influence on your company is multiplied massively by your ability to delegate

Most ambitious, driven people want to extend their influence in the team or company that they work at. For example, someone at a digital marketing consultancy may start by wanting influence over their client projects. After a few years of this, they’re probably going to want to extend their influence to more than just their own client projects. So they may end up wanting to manage a team of people so that they can influence more client projects. Eventually, they may want to run projects that influence the entire company, not just their team. 

Delegation is the key enabler to all of this. If you can’t delegate effectively, then you’re unlikely to get to a point where your influence extends far beyond your own projects.

Delegation enables others to grow in their roles

We briefly mentioned this point above, but it’s important enough to reiterate and go into more detail on. 

When we distil down the job of a manager to its absolute fundamentals, it is to enable the growth and development of their team. That’s it.

If we frame effective management as enabling growth and development of a team, then delegation is absolutely essential and a key skill for a manager to develop. If you don’t delegate, your team will never be able to grow to their full potential.

By giving your team more tasks and ownership, they not only develop their skills, they also get more experience in problem solving and difficult situations. 

It increases morale because it fosters trust within a team

There is little more that you can do to foster trust within your team than by giving them ownership of tasks. You’re basically saying that you trust someone to complete a task that you’d otherwise be able to do yourself. 

Of course, mistakes will be made and you need to effectively manage their situations, but generally, a team truly becomes a team when it’s built upon a foundation of trust. If you know that you can delegate something to someone and it will be done well, then your relationship with that person will become much stronger.

A step beyond this is when your team trusts each other and they effectively delegate work between them – not having to rely upon you. But it all starts with you and how you delegate.

Accountability is more likely to thrive within a team that can delegate work to each other

Leading on from the point above, a foundation of trust and effective delegation will also lead to a level of accountability within your team. Accountability is a word that can often worry people, because for many companies, it’s about pinning blame on people when something goes wrong.

In a healthy culture, it’s quite the opposite – accountability is about taking ownership of what you’re asked to do and keeping high standards. 

Effective delegation comes with an implicit (and sometimes explicit) level of accountability because you’re giving ownership of a task or project to someone. You’re not necessarily giving them complete ownership (you still oversee the task) but it can still make them feel accountable for the outcome of that task – ensuring that it’s completed to the best of their ability and to a high standard. 

The benefits of delegation

I’m not a fan of theoretical practices without proposing how that theory becomes actionable. So with that in mind, and ahead of Part Two in this series next week, let’s look at how we can take the reasons above and form the basis of something more actionable.

If we look across the six reasons for delegation above, we can see a few key benefits emerge and what they mean for effective management.

  1. Progression and development of your team: if you keep this in mind when delegating tasks to your team, you will see each time you delegate as an opportunity for someone to learn and gain new skills and experience. This shapes what you delegate as well as how you do it.
  2. Enabling your own growth and progression: but as we’ve discussed, it’s not just others that benefit from effective delegation. You can grow too, which means that every time that you delegate something, you should see it as an opportunity to focus on something else that fuels your own growth. 
  3. Turning a group of people into a team: two absolute fundamentals of any effective team is trust and accountability. Learning how to delegate enhances both of these fundamentals, meaning that each time that you delegate something, you have the opportunity to forge and strengthen the bonds between all of your team members.

These are the true “whys” of delegation – which is why it’s such an important skill to master. 

Now, we’re going to take the principles that we learned about last week and carry them forward into how we can approach delegating work so that we stand the best chance possible of being successful. 

It’s important to acknowledge that delegation can go wrong because it often does if you don’t put the appropriate time and effort into it. The problem here isn’t just that a task isn’t completed effectively, but if you have a bad experience when delegating work, you’re less likely to delegate in the future, leading to more problems.

I’ll be honest though, the first time (or even first few times) that you delegate a task to someone, it’s probably not going to go 100% to plan! It really is worth the effort to try to avoid things going wrong and to set things up for success.

Let’s look at a framework that you can take away and use to do just that.

A delegation framework and process

Before we get to the framework itself, I want to briefly mention that there are a multitude of skills that will combine to make you an effective delegator – these aren’t part of any framework or process, they are about you and your own skills and go beyond delegation.

I won’t cover them in detail here and will instead, point you towards more learning:

You need an incredibly strong understanding of these areas in order to be an effective delegator. If you can master these skills, you’ll find life as a manager far easier, especially when it comes to delegation.

Right, the framework itself is comprised of three parts:

  1. Give a brief
  2. Give feedback
  3. Give Space

Let’s look at each one in detail.

Give a brief

Although originating in computer science, there is a term that is hugely applicable to creating a brief for someone who you’re delegating work to:

Garbage in, garbage out.

If your brief to someone is garbage, then you should expert the work that comes back to you to be garbage too.

Essentially, a bad brief will lead to a bad outcome. And you know what? It would be your fault if this happens.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that 90% of successful delegation will come from the quality of your brief. You should plan to spend more time on a brief than seems necessary, particularly in the early days or when you’re briefing someone on a task for the first time.

Two core things contribute to this:

  • The curse of knowledge: you know far more than the person you’re delegating to about the task, but you’ll also take for granted a number of things that seem obvious to you, but are far from obvious to someone else. So, they will be missing from your brief.
  • People don’t know what they don’t know: the person you’re delegating to may also not know what you ask about the task, or what to clarify, or whether the brief is incomplete or not. If they’re never done it before, how would they know if your brief is good or bad?

So, how do you combat this?

Eight steps to writing a good brief

The steps to writing a good brief are actually very simple. The key is to cover the details enough as to not tell someone exactly how to do a task, but to tell them enough that things don’t go in the completely wrong direction.

Also, eight steps may feel like a lot. The first time that you do this, it will feel like a lot. But the more you do this, the more it will feel like one whole process and not eight distinct steps that you need to think about. Not to mention that you’ll find your own methods and techniques that will enhance these steps and make them more effective for you.

  • Step 1 –  Describe the task and what success looks like for it
  • Step 2 – Specify the outcome, not the steps to get there
  • Step 3 – Connect the work to a human being (client, customer etc)
  • Step 4 – Set a deadline.
  • Step 5 – Specify when you’ll check in and give feedback.
  • Step 6 – Give context on the task: why it’s important, what it’s being used for, what the value is to the client, what the end result is.
  • Step 7 – Tell them who they may need to speak with.
  • Step 8 – Be clear on what you’re delegating e.g. authority to make decisions.

Next, we need to think about the next part of our framework – giving feedback.

Give feedback

Now, let’s be honest about something – it’s very unlikely that you’ll be delivered something that is 100% perfect the first time round. The person that you delegate to is going to need feedback along the way.

This means that you need to build in time for feedback before the final deadline. When you write a brief, you can also specify when you will check in and provide feedback.

For example, if you set someone a task that you’d expect to take ten hours, you can tell them to give you a shout when they’re about two hours in and then again when they have two hours left. This gives clear points where you can check in and deliver feedback that will contribute to the task being completed successfully.

One important point here is to make sure you set aside enough time and headspace in your own schedule so that you can actually give good feedback. 

Another important point here is that you shouldn’t get hands on and fix mistakes yourself. Tell them how to fix mistakes and give them direction, but avoid correcting everything for them – they learn very little from this and it increases the chances of them making the same mistakes again in the future.

If you check in with them and find that they are off track, remind them of the brief and ask them if they believe that they are meeting it.

Finally, don’t give feedback too late. If you let them get so far into the process that they don’t have time to act on the feedback that you give them, then you’re delivering feedback too late. Give them a fighting chance of incorporating the feedback and don’t add to stress by giving impossible to action feedback.

Give space

The last part of the framework is to be prepared to give them space. If you’re a new manager, then delegating work can be a nerve wracking experience. To be honest, it can be for more experienced managers too!

Due to this, we can be tempted to check in too often and not give someone space and time to get on with the task themselves.

Here are some ways that you can give space when giving someone a task:

  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: it can feel uncomfortable to give away a task to someone, but get used to it, it’s necessary for everyone’s progression and growth.
  • Tell them that you’re going to give them space: hold yourself accountable by being open about giving them space, then keep your word.
  • But be available if they need you (and tell them!): despite giving them space, tell them that this doesn’t mean they can’t ask questions.
  • Tell them that you trust them to meet the brief: telling someone that you trust them is a huge signal to them that they should take a task seriously and that implicitly, you’re expecting them to do a good job.
  • Be clear that this is part of their progression: being given a piece of work to complete that you’ve never done before can be very hard. Tell them that you’re not just doing it for the sake of it, there is logic behind it and that logic ties heavily into their progression.
  • If they ask a question that you know the answer to, but you also know that they know the answer, tell them that they can figure this out: this is hard and you need to be very aware in order to do it, but if they ask a question that is relatively basic or simple for them to figure out themselves, don’t be afraid to say this to them and tell them that if they think a little more, they can figure it out and check the answer with you.

That’s about it. 

To wrap up, effective delegation means that the person you’re delegating to are empowered to do more of the task themselves next time. Eventually, they can do it completely on their own, without the level of supervision or detail we’ve outlined above.

This is what being a successful manager is truly about. 

In terms of what you can control here, they may fail and struggle with the task, but don’t let it be because of a bad brief, bad feedback or a lack of space.

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