Many leaders would say they already delegate a lot, yet plenty of employees would say their bosses are micromanagers who don’t delegate enough.
Disagreement about what delegation actually means is one major reason for that gap. Managers tend to see delegating as binary choice—either hold on or let go. Framed in those stark terms, the notion of letting things go can strike fear into managers’ hearts. Thus begins a vicious circle: As their employees push for more autonomy, leaders tend to hold on more tightly. To some degree or other, it happens every day in every organization.
Breaking that cycle starts by redefining delegation. It isn’t about managers losing control and oversight of what their teams are doing. Quite the opposite. Delegation is about enabling the most intelligent, capable, committed people to contribute to their organization’s success.
Leaders who delegate properly do these eight things well:
Managers who delegate effectively devise the right performance metrics and hold everyone accountable to them. You have to continuously gather data about what individuals, teams, the organization as a whole are accomplishing. Distribute that information—both the criteria and the results—to everyone involved. When those measures point to a person or team that isn’t delivering, it’s time to reconsider how that task should be delegated.
Good leaders demand those they entrust with important work to execute it well, but they also stay open to considering new approaches. In those cases, a good manager requires their teams to back up new proposals with solid research. Hold opinions to close scrutiny allow everyone who might be a stakeholder in a change you’re considering weigh in.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You’ll know from the measurements you take when things are going smoothly and don’t need to be touched. But letting others take the helm in carrying out certain duties frees an effective leader up to find ways where they might be done differently altogether. Delegating can actually open up new opportunities for innovation.
Effective leaders must offer robust and accessible training so the teams charged with handling certain work have the skills and tools to do it. They also allow those who succeed at new assignments and take on bigger challenges—and provide the right resources for those undertakings, too.
This is the surest way to avoid micromanaging. Give the responsibility for accomplishing something to others, but let them sort out the best way to go about accomplishing it. That gives your team a chance to prove how intelligent, talented, capable, and committed they are—or otherwise.
Reward exceptional work when you see it. Leaders who delegate effectively are on the lookout for future leaders who can distinguish themselves when they’re given the chance.
Managers who delegate properly still show up wherever they’re genuinely interested in finding out how things are coming along. Park your privilege at the door. Be humble and respectful. Ask good questions to encourage people to think clearly and demonstrate what they know. Share your ideas sparingly and strategically, and don’t dictate solutions.
The ultimate test of skillful delegation is how far a leader enlarges their team’s involvement in critical decision-making—whether it’s about people (hiring, management, rewards), strategy (goals and plans), or money (where it goes, and how much of it). These are the spheres most leaders hold onto tightly, and there’s indeed good reason to be careful. Mistakes involving staffing, strategy, and investments can become fatal errors that can threaten the success and very survival of an enterprise.
Yet there are now many real-world examples of leaders and companies whose delegation practices generate deep engagement and improve performance and profit. Some of them are profiled in-depth in books like The Great Game Of Business by Jack Stack, Open Book Management by John Case, and Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
It takes courage, intelligence, and humility to delegate in ways that actually drive productivity, engagement, and success throughout an entire organization. But every leader should aim for that high standard, rather than shrink from the risks it entails.
Baird Brightman, PhD, is principal of Worklife Strategies, where he helps people succeed in their business and career by strategically managing the human side of work.