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6 keys to successfully delegating at work

17 July 2023

Richard Burleigh, past ICE Council member, discusses the role of delegation in leadership and talent development.

6 keys to successfully delegating at work
Delegation is essential to an organisation's success. Image credit: Shutterstock

Some years ago, I was working with a young project manager in whom I’d seen great potential.

He was ambitious and wanted to develop himself further.

He also had a capable team for whom he was responsible.

I was his direct boss at the time, so I asked him to take on certain additional tasks to push him out of his comfort zone.

In particular, I involved him in different duties inside and outside the company, such as technical working groups, representing the company at local conferences, etc.

He was very motivated and engaged himself with full commitment.

Not enough time

However, after a few months, and during one of our regular one-to-one dialogues, he said that while he was grateful for the opportunity to be involved in these different activities, he didn’t have time because of his day-to-day tasks.

It was at this moment I realised I’d made wrong assumptions.

In reality, he was having great difficulty or simply didn’t know how to delegate tasks to others.

He thought I was just giving him more work to do!

The reasons why some leaders have difficulty delegating are multiple and complex and the subject of a different discussion.

Here, I want to look at some of the key elements of a successful delegation.

First, why delegate at all?

Effective delegation is a crucial skill for leaders and managers in any organisation.

By assigning tasks and responsibilities to others, delegation not only lightens the workload but also empowers team members, fosters growth, and drives overall productivity.

In the example above, if my colleague had delegated some of his responsibilities to others within his team, it would’ve freed up time for the tasks I’d given him.

In turn, this would’ve promoted his own and team members’ development.

I believe these are the six key success factors:

1. Trust

Building trust is the core foundation of successful delegation.

Your delegee must know that you trust them – not think or hope, but know you do.

This means that before you think about delegating responsibility to someone you must work to build this trust through your words and actions.

The test of this trust will be when you do delegate something and it doesn’t go well - your behaviours and actions if this happens should be supporting.

For example, don't say to your delegee something like ‘well of course I would not have made that decision’ or ‘why did you choose to do it this way?’.

These are guaranteed trust-busters!

2. Communication

When you delegate, you need to communicate this to all stakeholders - not just the delegee but all parties involved in the process.

For example, if you’re going on a short vacation and you delegate the decision making to another person then firstly – and this sounds obvious – they need to know.

I’ve been surprised how often this isn’t the case!

Secondly, those who’ll be seeking decisions and direction in your absence need to know who to turn to and also know that the delegee has your clear authority.

And equally important, your boss needs to know – again, I’m surprised just how often this doesn’t happen.

3. Scope

You need to be clear in the definition of what tasks you’re delegating and where the boundaries are so, once again, all stakeholders are properly informed.

It would be unfortunate if, for example, you delegate to someone the preparation of a client proposal, but you omit that final approval before submission stays with you.

4. Responsibility

Remember, when you delegate tasks to another person, the responsibility for performance of these tasks is still yours.

It’s crucially important that you properly recognize this and whatever the outcome of the delegation, you own it.

Good leaders will voice recognition and praise when a delegated task is successful and stoically own it and move forward if it is not.

5. Letting go

When you delegate a task to someone else you open up a whole new world of possibilities for how that task will be accomplished - if you let go.

Of course, you’ll first define the task and the expected outcomes and timescales but – because you trust your delegee – you let them decide how they should achieve this outcome.

This means you have to let go.

One of the worst things you can do as a leader is delegate tasks and then continue to be engaged deciding every step of the way.

You’ll demotivate your team and fail as an effective leader.

And finally, but most importantly...

6. Choosing and preparing the person

When you decide to delegate a task, you need to be sure the person is ready to take additional responsibility or that you carefully calibrate the degree of additional tasks to their capability.

If you get this wrong, you can overload a good employee, doing lasting damage.

I’ve always tended to think in terms of stretch targets – what can this person achieve, knowing that I’m there to support them even if they fail and knowing that whatever the outcome, they will learn something and grow.

We all know from childhood that some of our most important learnings came from our mistakes.

Delegation is essential

All organisations survive only through effective delegation within their management structures.

The more effective the quality of delegation in each layer of leadership, the greater the impact for the health, capability and potential of the company.

Finally, I say to all leaders – honestly scrutinise your own and your team leaders’ competences in delegation and see what untapped possibilities are sitting right in front of you!

  • Richard Burleigh, coach and President's Future Leaders group mentor