Managers worry about their effectiveness, yet paradoxically tend to struggle with delegating authority as a means to becoming more productive.
Success in a leadership role requires that you stop focusing solely on your value as an individual contributor and start sharing the load to strengthen your team’s performance.
Delegating authority gives you an opportunity to earn your team’s trust, shape employees into more well-rounded professionals, and gain recognition as the leader of a team that gets stuff done.
(Related: How To Write A Formal Warning Letter).
What Is Delegation?
Delegation happens when a manager’s tasks and authority are allocated to direct reports in order to maximise each person’s productivity and amplify your team’s overall impact.
When you delegate you place your trust in a direct report to achieve the outcome you want, while remaining answerable to your own superiors for ensuring the task goes smoothly.
However, even experienced leaders fall into the trap of taking on too much themselves or hoarding control.
You’re probably struggling to delegate responsibilities if you find yourself:
- Overly stressed.
- Not keeping up and missing deadlines.
- Constantly fighting fires, like last-minute urgent requests.
- Regularly interrupted by lower level employees seeking permission.
- Getting dragged into issues beyond your remit.
Have you delegated authority only to be disappointed and conclude, wryly, that “when you want something done well, do it yourself”? The root cause could be your judgement around hiring. Do you know how to test for relevant competencies?
Why Is Delegating Work Important?
Delegated authority is a powerful source of leverage. It’s the secret to doing more with less.
Importantly, it provides your employees with growth opportunities and helps build a high-performance organisation. Delegation is a critical way for managers to:
- Boost confidence of, and build trust with, your reports – by creating conditions where team members depend on each other.
- Ensure timely completion of tasks by allocating work to people with available capacity.
- Strengthen your leadership skills by coaching employees through mistakes (every mistake is a learning opportunity for you and your subordinate).
- Increase your team’s effectiveness by ensuring you don’t become a bottleneck (focus on building the team, rather than working in the team.
Remember that people are most productive when they’re doing what they like. Delegate to people who like (and are good at) doing the task. This is a tip I learned from Sam Altman.
Is Delegated Authority Same As Delegated Accountability?
No. You’re ultimately accountable. Your boss will not accept the excuse,
Maybe John messed up, but your boss won’t (and shouldn’t) care. Your failure to hold John accountable is your boss’ only concern.
(Related: How To Improve Workplace Productivity).
You need to own that failure, or your reputation will suffer.
Avoid getting stuck in lower-level management by banning the word “because” from your vocabulary. “I didn’t deliver because the marketing manager didn’t give me the right CRM permissions” isn’t a good response. Own the mistake, then use an emotionally smart conversation to discuss the issue with the marketing manager who let you down.
Do you know the difference between three core concepts: authority, responsibility and accountability?
What Is Authority?
Authority is both being in charge and wielding genuine power over a situation.
People in top-level management hold the most authority, and it cascades down.
For it to work, be clear about what kind of control the employee has. What orders can they give, or which resources or budget can they access to accomplish the task assigned?
(Related: Is An MBA Worth It?)
What Is Responsibility?
Responsibility defines the duties and scope of the work your direct reports take on.
Taking responsibility is about employees recognising their obligation and not making excuses if they fall short.
You’ll only breed discontent and discord if you make people responsible without also offering adequate authority to realistically achieve a task. Frontline workers and mid-level managers have the onus of more responsibility (because they’re completing more tasks) and need to be supported accordingly.
What Is Accountability?
Even when managers delegate, they retain the highest level of authority and responsibility within their team.
Managers must justify and face the consequences of the decisions and results that arise from their direct reports’ efforts (remember the VW emissions scandal?).
How To Delegate Authority Effectively In 5 Steps.
Effective delegation will eventually lighten your burden, so take the time to incorporate these steps into your management approach.
1. Know What To Let Go Of.
Tasks that fall squarely in your purview as a manager shouldn’t be fully offloaded onto subordinates.
Some activities will only have the desired impact, or be viewed as legitimate, because they’re based on your insights as a manager. For instance:
- Performance management reviews.
- Executive reporting to the C-Suite.
- Setting high levels goals and budgets.
- Recruiting and onboarding a new team member.
- Resolving disputes or conflicts between teammates.
That doesn’t mean you need to do it all. You could delegate writing the draft of a report to a team member, so you can merely refine the content.
Similarly, you might have an employee shortlist applications for an open role, but then take responsibility for choosing who to interview.
Learning to let go can be difficult if you’re concerned others won’t do a good enough job. To help address this fear: take time to understand your direct reports’ strengths and skills; remind yourself that part of your role is coaching others to do better and learn from their mistakes. Start small by delegating easy, low-risk tasks at first.
2. Thoughtfully Assign Tasks To Others.
Delegating is a subset of workload management. Distributing required tasks fairly, and ensuring that people have the capacity and resources they need to realistically complete the task, is a key management skill.
Before delegating tasks, ask yourself:
This is particularly vital if you’re planning to delegate a recurring job with a view to expanding an employees’ responsibilities long-term.
Also keep in mind:
- Realistic workloads vary by person, depending on their competencies and energy levels. For instance, it’s unfair to expect a junior member of the team to produce outputs at the same speed or level of quality as a more experienced employee.
- ‘Stretch’ tasks are an important development tool. It’s tempting to always delegate to the person you consider the most competent or skilled, but you’ll miss the chance to help others boost their confidence and capabilities.
- In-demand employees may face burnout. They say you should ask a busy person if you want something done. But often, some of the most ‘effective’ employees are those headed towards exhaustion because managers did not protect them.
Be careful you’re not setting people up to fail, and shaking their confidence, by delegating responsibilities that are ‘too much, too soon’. Don’t assign tasks without taking employees’ existing strengths and interests into account.
3. Set Clear Expectations.
Most delegation failures can be traced back to this step. Imprecise communication about the desired outcome risks an employee rushing into unnecessary work that needs to be redone.
Ensure you have:
- Explained the context, like how it drives organisational goals, any preliminary work done, or background material about the topic or client.
- Defined a clear scope of work, including deliverables and the format required.
- Provided explicit instructions or guidelines where needed (e.g., a process to adhere to).
- Highlighted any limitations or boundaries (e.g., keep the budget under $1,000).
- Provided clear success metrics that you will evaluate the work against.
- Set an achievable deadline, and clarity around timing of milestones if needed.
- Clarify communication channels that will be used to ask questions or provide progress updates, and how often?
4. Monitor Progress.
Establishing a cadence for check-ins about the progress of a delegated task is part of setting expectations — this step is where you follow through.
That might require putting reminders in your calendar and setting aside time to review an employee’s work.
Project management or collaboration software is a useful way for employees to share regular feedback, enabling managers to review progress asynchronously so you don’t hold up the employees’ workflow.
The key here is:
- Being engaged and available to support your employees if they face an obstacle, need advice, or require course correction;
- Without micromanaging by dictating what should happen step-by-step or constantly hovering over employees’ shoulders.
5. Provide Feedback & Give Credit.
Give your employees feedback once the task is done, but remember to deliver criticism constructively and add balance through positive comments.
Refer back to the expectations you set and:
- Explain how the employee deviated from expectations to help them learn and improve.
- Discuss how well the end result measures up against the success metrics you defined.
- Ask for feedback about your delegation style. Were the expectations clear enough? Would more regular check-ins have helped?
Recognising your employees’ success is a critical aspect of building morale and engagement, so don’t hold back on the praise where it’s deserved.
Consider public displays of recognition, such as a mention at a team meeting or a thank-you lunch.
Mark Zuckerberg: A Chief Executive Officer Who Delegates Well?
We don’t see many great examples of leaders taking accountability publicly — but Mark Zuckerberg’s response to a 2016 scandal is a prime case study. At the time, Facebook was under heavy scrutiny for not protecting the data privacy of users.
Zuckerberg faced the media and declared he was accountable.
“I started this place, I run it,” he said.
Despite Facebook being a huge multi-million dollar corporation with thousands of individuals responsible for a multitude of tasks, including many layers of managers who made decisions about what to delegate, Zuckerberg stood up and owned the problem as “my mistake”.
How does this reveal successful delegation?
It means your direct reports can tackle tasks with greater enthusiasm and without excessive fear of failure, knowing they’ve got the freedom and authority they need.
It means your organisation can move quickly and achieve more. Yes, mistakes can happen — but it’s also fundamental for innovation and growth.
Frequently Asked Questions About Delegating Authority.
Delegated authorities look easier than they are..
Why Do Some Managers Avoid Delegating?
Delegating requires a mindset shift, especially for new managers who’ve likely risen in the ranks due to being a strong individual performer.
Rather than prove themselves through their own outputs, managers need to leverage and expand the capabilities of their team.
Managers tend to avoid delegating because they:
- Are in the habit of doing everything themselves.
- Feel guilty or wary of overloading others.
- Believe it will take too long to explain what’s needed.
- Don’t know who is better suited for the task.
A more selfish side of refusing to delegate authority is not wanting to relinquish power or interesting work to others.
Which Work Should You Delegate?
It makes more sense to delegate when:
- The work matches the existing priorities of a team member.
- Someone else has richer insights or knowledge related to the task.
- Your report has stronger technical skill or proficiency with a required software.
- When you spend more time on administrative tasks than on making it rain $.
When delegating with the intent of developing your team, ask yourself:
- Will this task push the individual out of their comfort zone without stressing them?
- Do you have time to monitor their progress, provide assistance and review their outputs?
- Do we have time to redo or fix the work if it isn’t delivered as planned?
- Will coaching an employee through a recurring task allow you to take it off your plate long-term?
Final Thoughts On How To Delegate Authority.
As you climb higher in your career, delegating becomes a superpower for proving yourself as a manager. By judiciously dividing your own work among your team, you can get more done at the same time as building your team’s potential.
But remember, managers can never be completely hands-off.
No matter how much work you delegate authority as a manager, you must take ownership of your team’s overarching success or failure.