How To Figure Out When And What You Need To Delegate

It may seem like it’s easier to do things yourself rather than teach someone else, but it’s a surefire way to ruin your work environment.

How To Figure Out When And What You Need To Delegate
[Photo: Flickr user Dan Taylor]

If you’re like many first-time leaders, you clearly don’t have the time or capacity to do everything yourself. But delegating tasks can be daunting, particularly if you’re reluctant to give up the kind of work you enjoy or are worried about losing momentum on a project if the delegated work isn’t up to standard right away.


It’s tempting to do the math this way: If I’m spending more time helping others than it would take to do the work myself, it’s just not worth it.

But that math doesn’t add up. Not only is it a fast track to burnout (yours), but it’s a surefire way to get your team feeling bored, mistrusted, stifled, and unimportant. You’ll end up getting less work done, not more. And by underdelegating, you ensure that your organization is staffed with individuals who aren’t prepared to take on new challenges. Sure, you want to get work done, but you also want everyone to contribute to the company and grow their skills while they’re at it. Development Dimensions International’s data bears this out. In our 360-assessments (your peers, boss, and direct reports), delegation is one of a leader’s lowest-rated skills.

Delegation is a critical leadership tool that allows you to free your time to focus on other key initiatives. At the same time, it’s much more than just assigning tasks to people. Rather, it’s a tool for ensuring that every member of your team is contributing to business results and continually developing new skills and expertise. Your job is to scan the landscape and look for opportunities to match the right people with the right tasks that can accomplish both. If you’re successful, you’ll unlock your time, skills, and abilities to yield the greatest benefits for everyone. It’s good for you, your team, your company, and your customers. And looking for these opportunities should become second nature to you.

Photo: Flickr user Hitchster

To think about how to allocate the work in the right way, it’s important to understand authority. Specifically, the authority that the person receiving the task will have in three key areas: to make decisions about the work; to utilize resources; and to solve problems. You’ll need to make some important decisions about what authority to give up, when, and why. There are four basic categories to consider:

Keep the Task

Hold on to the authority and responsibility for handling the task. You’ll most likely keep a task when it is exclusively in your area of responsibility, such as a performance problem that can threaten the group’s results. (Most things related to personnel issues probably should stay with you.) Additionally, you’ll want to keep the task when others aren’t qualified or can’t meet the deadlines.

Delegate the Idea Generation

Assign responsibility for generating ideas or thinking through a situation. Delegating in this way is appropriate when you want the benefit of others’ expertise or perspectives, or when you want to build commitment by involving people who will be affected by the ideas or decisions generated. Don’t make this an empty exercise! If you’re not prepared to accept the ideas that come up (within limits), you’ll send the message that you don’t trust your people. Not only is that demotivating, but you’ll also lose credibility.


Delegate the Task

Assign responsibility for completing a well-defined task that involves little or no decision-making authority. In this case you, as the leader, retain the idea generation, but simply delegate the activity to complete the task. These are the kinds of tasks that must be done by the book but offer an opportunity for a team member to try something new. For example, if your business is heavily regulated, then you could use of this type of delegation, with clear guidelines, with a new team member over a few projects.

Delegate the Authority

Assign responsibility for completing a well-defined task that involves defined decision-making authority. This is a big one. When others are qualified to make bigger decisions or can perform the task with a bit of coaching, then this is a perfect opportunity to delegate authority for the entirety of the task. For example, instead of you on-boarding the new team member on project management, why not let your two senior project leaders do the training? Eventually, the new person would be working closely with these team leaders anyway, and it will help build their skills together.

Take a moment now to think about how you spend your time at work. What tasks or responsibilities could you delegate to achieve results faster and more effectively? What new roles are you taking on? Which ones can you delegate? What tasks can you delegate to free up more of your time to focus on top-priority objectives?

Adapted from Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out The Best In Others by Tacy M. Byham and Richard S. Wellins, Wiley, 2015. Byham and Wellins are CEO and SVP, respectively, of Development Dimensions International (DDI).