How to Delegate

There is only so much time in a given day, and we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need others who can help us. Working together, we can accomplish more things than we could by doing them by ourselves. Being able to delegate things to others is part of maintaining our personal effectiveness.

I am talking about delegating from the perspective of someone who is managing a group of people, be it their family or the organization they work in. It involves delegating things to others at home and at work so we can accomplish more things together and grow in the process. Also, delegation is not just limited to a “leader” or “managerial” role. Anyone in a group of people can and should have the ability to delegate. It is a life skill that we should all learn and practice.

Before we discuss methods of delegation, let’s cover a few reasons why we fail to delegate things to others at home and at work.

  • Because we think “teaching/training” others will take more time and effort than the payoff involved; it would just be easier to do it ourselves. We see the “pain” of teaching others in the short-term and we forget the benefits (time gained) that we may gain in the long-term.

  • Because we think we can do it better than others even though it might not be in our best interests to do so, even when others might be better suited to do that work.

  • Because we don’t trust others to do their jobs well, which ironically only happens when we don’t involve others in the work or allow them to take ownership of it. When there is no ownership of the work, there is no responsibility.

  • Because we often find it hard to reconcile the task involved with the person who has the willingness and the skill to do the task.

When we don’t delegate things that we should, we do those tasks ourselves and use time that would have been better used for more important tasks. We do it ourselves unwillingly, and, in the process, complain about it. We get stuck with this inner conflict without ever fully resolving it or bringing closure.

There are a few reasons we delegate things to others:

We need to accept that we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need others to work with/for us in order to make things happen. That is also where our mutual growth lies.

One reason we delegate things that we can do (but choose not to do) is because someone else is better suited for it. When we do things that someone else is better suited for, we are doing a disservice both to them and to ourselves. We are robbing them of the opportunity to do the work they are better suited for, and we are using our time poorly.

When we find ourselves doing something repetitive, we can teach others the steps and allow them to own the task. Of course, there are times when you’re the best person to do the job, in which case you should automate your workflow instead of delegating it to someone else, but more on that in a future piece.

Another reason we delegate things is when someone else can do it better (and faster) than us. That’s why we hire them. We would be doing a disservice to ourselves by not doing the work that we are meant to do and instead using that time to do something we are less-than-good at. Not only do we end up doing a poor job, but we are also robbing an expert of their chance to do great work. It’s a lose-lose for you and the expert.

Understand that we are always spending time or money (when others work for/with us). When we delegate things to others, we are choosing to save our time and spend money instead (by letting others do it). We can always make another buck, but we cannot create more time because it is the only non-renewable resource we have.

When done right, delegating effectively can be challenging and rewarding at the same time.

Let’s go over some incorrect ways to delegate before we talk about how to delegate.

Most of us are guilty of delegating actions or tasks instead of delegating responsibility for outcomes or results. In other words, we tell others what (and how) they should be doing their work. By doing so, we are robbing them of their ability to think by doing their thinking for them. As a result of this, the person to whom we’re delegating the task does not need to think about how to do the work because we’re doing that thinking for them. When there is no thinking involved, there is only compliance, and that is a sign of poor leadership.

When we are focused on methods, we feel responsible for results, not them. That’s a problem because we are not involving them to take ownership of their work, and they don’t feel responsible for results. That is ineffective delegation.

How we delegate depends on the kind of task and the person to which we are delegating.

There are a couple of ways you can delegate:

One instance is where you do something repetitive and you’ve figured out the workflow and are able to share it with the person to which you’re delegating. In this case, the person you’re delegating this task to simply has to follow the workflow and do the task. There is not much thinking, learning, or growth involved here for them.

The second instance is where you both agree on final outcomes without focusing on the exact process or method of delivery. The other person is responsible for the result, but they have the freedom and flexibility to choose the method they use. Of course, there would be certain guidelines or constraints as to what not to do. I will be describing this process in more detail below.

If it’s a one-off task, then you might get away by telling them what needs to be done and how they are going to do it. Delegating becomes more important when something needs to be done repeatedly. You’ll want to invest some time up front “training” them, which, if you do it right, will pay off many times over in the long-run. Plus, they have a chance to learn (and do) things. Effective delegation is always a win-win.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re delegating:

First, understand the difference between doling out tasks (things to do) versus assigning responsibility for outcomes/results. You are doing the latter.

Figure out objectives. Focus on the what (results), not the how (methods). That means the onus is on you to create a clear, mutual understanding of the results desired with the person to which you’re delegating. Then, mutually agree on what that person will be accountable and responsible for and when everything is due.

Establish measures of success to evaluate results later. That’s how you know if/when the outcome has been achieved.

With the help of that person, identify the resources at their disposal to get the job done. These can be parameters in the form of constraints as to what is acceptable and what is not. Keep in mind that you’re not telling them what to do, but you can tell them what not to do.

As a rule of thumb, the more “mature” the person, the less accountability and guidance is needed. For instance, you could both mutually agree on a deadline by which the work needs to be done as per parameters established.

Once you have identified resources, mention what will happen as a result of the evaluation, and then evaluate results to determine consequences. Positive or negative. Positive consequences would be to reward the person for doing a good job, let’s say. Negative consequences would be to have a constructive discussion about what went well and what needs work. It involves identifying the areas they need help with in order to achieve the outcome.

To recap, the process is:

  • Decide on objectives, outcomes, and results
  • Establish measures/parameters of success
  • Identify resources (including constraints)
  • Evaluate results to decide on consequences

The challenge is to reconcile the results we want with the ability and willingness of the person to get those results. We need both willingness and skill. Either one without the other won’t work.

When we tell people to do their jobs, we get workers. When we ask others for help, we build trust with them. When we trust people to get the job done, we get leaders.

Once we delegate, we trust them to do the right thing. They should know that it’s okay to make mistakes (within reason). They need to feel safe. Only when they have the freedom to make different mistakes will they be able to do better work. Innovation requires failure.

When you delegate, pay attention to the results and learn from your mistakes. This informs how you delegate the next time.

“Delegate” and “micromanage” are not the same thing. When you delegate, you’re not walking away from a task you’ve delegated. You are still involved with the process while the other person leads the way. The worst thing you can do is to give someone the responsibility for an outcome and then micromanage all the way. Doing this serves nobody.

Push work as far down the hierarchy as possible. That means giving as much authority as possible to those who have the information so they can make appropriate decisions for themselves.

Track the outcomes you have delegated in your trusted system to evaluate results in the future.

Use a service like Fancy Hands to delegate unimportant tasks (like doing basic research, for instance) to virtual assistants.

When you hire new employees, look for those who are ready to take ownership of their work from the first day on the job. Each employee should choose to think like an entrepreneur as if it’s their own business. Each employee needs to act like a boss (and not be a boss). When you hire someone for their skill or expertise, be okay with giving them control over their work. Let them do it with the flexibility of asking you for help.

Identify outcomes in your work that you can delegate. Think about activities you can drop entirely without affecting your work. Identify objectives in your work that others may be better suited for and/or are experts at. The more you can delegate effectively, the more time you have to do the work that matters to you.

At any point in time, we are managing ourselves or managing others. How well we manage others comes down to delegation, which is the key to effective management.

We should do things that only we can do while delegating things that others are better suited for or are better at (experts).

Learning to delegate is a crucial skill to practice in this knowledge-work-driven economy. The sooner we can learn (and practice) this skill, the more effective and efficient we can be. It serves both us and others in the long-run.

We need to make time for work that matters. That can only happen when we do the work that only we can do. Only when we learn and practice to delegate effectively can we accomplish much more as a society than we can do on our own.

If you liked this piece, subscribe to the Weekly Newsflash to read my latest writing. Topics include mental health, simple living, and true success: