Often we think we’ve delegated a task only to discover, too late, that the work hasn’t been done, has been done wrong or done to an unacceptable standard. So you step in to re-do, fix or undo the work because your client or your boss will hold you accountable for the poor delivery.

It’s enough to give you restless, sleepless nights and cause you stress or heartburn as you juggle which priority work you’ll have to put off, again.

We all know we need to delegate. Some of us find that hard to do. And of those of us that do delegate, only a small percentage do it well.

We’re agreed, I hope, that delegating isn’t “Ellen, can you pick up the supplier acquisition process and report back to the team when it’s done?” (That’s an instruction disguised as a question!)

Delegating involves handing over information, documentation and stakeholder contacts, as well as agreeing on deliverables and timelines. While 5-30 mins may be sufficient to delegate simpler tasks, you might need 90-120 mins for complicated ones.

How delegated tasks get derailed

From their side…

  • He doesn’t understand the opportunity. Why is this task important? How does it fit in the big picture? Is it strategic or tactical? How high-profile is it? What’s at stake?
  • Aside from reasons that it’s in his job description, why have you asked him, in particular, to do it? Is he best placed in terms of skill and experience? Is this a good stretch towards growing him in his role or for future roles? Is it an opportunity to demonstrate his ability or skill?
  • She doesn’t know how to do it or doesn’t feel she has the freedom to determine better ways of doing it or to go about it using her own process. She could be feeling stuck at this hurdle; if there is a legitimate (legal or accountability) reason for doing it a certain way, it’s possible she hasn’t understood this.
  • She is genuinely overloaded and does not have the time and headspace to re-prioritise all her tasks or negotiate through competing priorities.
  • He doesn’t like you. There is tension between you. (We’ll unpack this another time!)

From your side:

  • You’ve half-delegated (I’m being nice… what I mean is you delegated badly)
  • You’ve been too prescriptive where you could let him determine and perhaps improve the existing process. Or you haven’t explained the legal or accountability ramifications of not following the due process or using the tools/system that is in place.
  • You haven’t checked-in and mentored/coached adequately – maybe you check-in too much (which says you don’t trust them) or not checking in enough (so you’re not able to course-correct or provide advise)
  • You haven’t clarified her level of authority. Or you haven’t given her the authority to undertake all parts of the task. For example, is she expected to analyse the data and make a recommendation to you but not make the final decision?
  • You haven’t explained why quality is important and where it is especially important in the process or outcome.
  • You haven’t flagged where the likely sticking points and bottlenecks are and what he needs to when they happen, or generally what is options are when he hits any hurdles. Should he attempt to resolve himself? And when should he come to you for support and what does he need to prepare for that discussion?
  • You’ve assumed too much. Maybe the task is more complicated with more dependencies, touch-points or regulations than when you did it last
    maybe you’ve assumed that because she’s done something similar or has done part of the task in the past or has been in the same team when the task was done last, that she knows now how to do it.
  • It’s also possible that you’ve over-estimated his abilities and have been swayed by your own biases or needs. It happens a lot more than we care to admit.

A lot can go wrong or just not happen!

Delegate so you can sleep, peacefully.

Here are my 5 key considerations for helping you delegate better.

1. How much freedom and authority does she have?

Does she have the freedom to determine how he completes the task? Are there non-negotiable procedures or steps she needs to take, and is she aware of why?
Does she have the right to make the final decision? If not, have you made clear when and why you need to approve the decision? What part of the final decision-making, if any, will she have?

Have you given her full authority to make decisions from start to finish? And in doing so, have you introduced her to all involved stakeholders as having such authority? How will you support her and what red tape must you cut in doing so?

2. If it’s a stretch, how will you support him?

Is the task something he is well-matched to do? And if the task is a stretch while offering an opportunity for him to grow, are you planning to fully support him with check-ins and coaching to achieve it successfully? Have you allocated time for this?

Have you provided him with all the information, contacts, resources, tools, historical background and authority that they need? If he’s got a heavy workload already, have you taken some work off their load (or redistributed their workload or adjusted timelines) to make room for this higher priority task?

3. Who do you need to be so that she can succeed?

Are you being patient enough in delegating? Or are you being too patient and why? Being too patient may be a sign that you feel responsible for how things are going in some way. Maybe you didn’t emphasise the consequences enough. Maybe you’re feeling a bit territorial about it.

Recognise your response, name it and then re-focus on the task, project, team or client. Sometimes recognising your own response is all you need to do to get past it. The signal to listen to is that you sense that things could go horribly wrong – the risk. The signal to push aside is that you, for some reason, feel uncomfortable or insecure about something – the distraction.

Don’t wait. Listen to the risk signal. It’s time to course-correct.

No need to be heavy-handed or go in with “I’m worried about the status, what have you been up to? Let me tell you how I do it…” Remember, you are a resource to him.

Sit down again, ask how things are going, what is his plan, what challenges is he coming up against, where is he stuck, what’s his plan for getting unstuck, and how can you help remove some obstacles. Obstacles can include gossip and back-channel conversations that are undermining her efforts, not having access to the right people, up-the-pipe or down-the-pipe bottlenecks, or some technical details.

Run the check-in in that order. And at the end always ask, “Was that helpful? What could I/you/we do differently next time?” (You’re modelling, remember.)

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4. Be crystal clear about the consequences for him and for you

Are you being mindful of the greater impact on the team by delegating this task? Is your intention to permanently hand over this task and why? Have you explained the consequences of doing the task well? Have you explained the consequences of doing the task badly? What are you prepared to do if things go well? What will you need to do if things go badly?

Everything has consequences. Not only do you have a responsibility to the business but you also have a responsibility to all your people to safeguard the best work environment and culture that you can. This includes not tolerating underperformance because it causes pain for the rest of the team.

Does delegating this task provide you more time to consider other more strategic activity affecting the team or the business? Are you actually doing this or letting that time get eaten up inefficiently – there’s accountability on you too?

5. How you delegate *does* shape your organisation’s culture

In delegating this task, how is the rest of your team affected? Is your approach to delegating aligned to the behaviours your organisation values? What is your team reading from the way you delegate? Are you demonstrating that you care about the success of your people? How do your delegation skills show up more widely in your organisation’s culture?

How would you like someone to delegate this task to you? If you were delegating to your boss, would you be more diligent and take more time?

If you rush the delegation process or half-delegate, you could be showing that you don’t really care or that person isn’t important enough to do a proper handover with or that the quality of the work is unimportant, or the task itself is not important. Worse still, people come to distrust you because they feel you set others up to fail.

Don’t forget…

If the person you’ve delegated too keeps interrupting you with questions, it’s possible that there is a gap of skill or information or clarity or confidence. Notice the pattern and schedule time to review. Re-evaluate your own assumptions, adjust your monitoring and checking-in frequency, or break the task down into simpler steps or phases.

Maybe it requires more than one person to complete it. Spread the work across more people or break it down into smaller phases.

Depending on the task, some additional training may be necessary.

Be prepared, without making a fuss, drama or gossip, to re-assign the task to someone else if you feel that the person won’t be able to successfully complete it because of changing priorities or skills gap. Don’t forget you are the person who chose the person to delegate to so, in the spirit of “mistakes happen” even by you, handle the transition with compassion and avoid blaming anyone. It may also be possible, if handled gracefully, for the original person to shadow the new delegate to learn and take on smaller pieces of the task.

Delegating tasks is one of the toughest aspects of managing a team. This skill is a core focus area of the team productivity and executive coaching work that I do. Read more about that here. 


Image CC by Chris Waits