The word “delegate” surrounded by outward facing arrows, written on glass in red ink by a female hand.

Too busy? Delegation is the art of leadership; how to do it right.

Here’s how to delegate work to others to free up your time for the things that you can’t

ne of the most effective ways of achieving what you need to get done is to delegate tasks to other people. Delegation is what military theorists refer to as a “force multiplier”; delegate something and your individual efforts are multiplied. You may be able to delegate tasks as a part of your daily work, or you may be able to outsource tasks in order to make progress on your personal projects, either way it’s worth considering.

Imagine if you could delegate everything on your to do list to other people how much time you’d have. I’m not saying that you can get rid of all your tasks, but you might be able to get rid of some and, if you do it well you will save yourself time and may unlock hidden talents in those around you.

But, before we get to carried away, it’s important to remember that when you delegate a task you still retain responsibility for ensuring that it gets done. You don’t simply get rid of the task, you must still ensure it is done, but you do get to chose who does it. Remember, when delegated tasks fail, it’s as much the fault of the person delegating as the person who fails at the task. As such, it is essential that you delegate effectively.

It may be obvious, but the most important thing to consider when delegating is whether the person you aim to delegate to is capable of doing it. There is no point delegating a complex task to someone who hasn’t got the skills without taking steps to give them the support they need as you will simply end up having to pick up the pieces once they’ve failed; remember, you retain responsibility for the task (I’ve repeated that because it’s important!). I’ve been here, delegating tasks to a junior member of staff who I expected to do better and then being dismayed at a stunning failure. All my fault!

When assessing whether someone has the skills to pick up a task for you, if you decide that the answer is that they don’t, you will need to decide if the person can develop the skills with some training or coaching or whether you are at risk of flogging a dead horse. Put simply, has the task got a chance of getting done or will sharing the work just mean you and your delegate be miserable at the end of the process!

Having ensured that the person you have selected has the skills to complete the task, you should now consider is your communication. You need to be clear about the nature of the task, the expected delivery time and the expected quality criteria.

If you give vague instructions about what you are looking for, the odds are on that you will be disappointed with the results you get. Think about the end result you are aiming to achieve by asking yourself “what are the things that will show that this task has been completed?” or “What am I asking to be delivered?”

The trick here is to think about the thing that you are asking to be delivered; after all, if there’s nothing being delivered, what’s the point of the task! For example, if you are asking for someone to talk to someone on your behalf, you probably want some questions asked and a summary of the conversation as the end result. If you are asking someone to guard a doorway, your end deliverable is probably that no one unauthorised gets through the door. By stating a task in terms of what you want achieved, you remove a lot of uncertainty about what the task actually entails.

You may even want to jot down the answer to that question in order to help form a record of what you’re asking for. If possible, you should avoid being overly prescriptive about how a task should be done, after all, if you are delegating a task, you should have confidence that the person you are delegating to has the abilities to complete the task. It may be that you are giving a task to someone who may not be able to do it as a training exercise; in this case, you have a responsibility to provide enough guidance so that the poor recipient isn’t abandoned with what, to them may be, an impossible task.

Whatever you need doing, there’s a lot to be said for agreeing your criteria together so that you have time for a back and forth conversation about what you’re trying to achieve together.

Here’s a checklist to help you define a task;

  • What are you asking for?
  • How good does it have to be? If you just need a rough and ready list, tell them; otherwise you may get a long PowerPoint presentation with animations and sound effects!
  • When does it have to be done by? Try to be reasonable!
  • Why is it being done? Sometimes a little context goes a long way!
  • How important is the task in comparison to other things they may have on their plate?
  • Is there anything that they must do in the completion of the task? Perhaps you know that there are three people who must be consulted about the task and that it will be useless if they are missed out.

Once you’ve defined the task, try to avoid micro-managing. Accept that you’ve delegated it, after all, there’s no point delegating if you’re not going to reap the benefit of it actually being completed by someone else. You are allowed to check progress, ideally on an agreed timescale, but please don’t check every five minutes! As a rule of thumb, when you’re about halfway between the point when you delegated a task and when it should be delivered it is an acceptable time to check that they are progressing ok with it. If you check too often, you’ll just give the person a feeling that you don’t trust them!

When the task is completed, you should thank them. Thank them first, before you’ve seen what they’ve done. It costs you nothing and makes you a nicer person to work for! Then you should check what they’ve done. You should, at this stage, resist the temptation to be overly critical if they’ve done something differently to how you expected it to be done. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

If however, the deliverable is not of the standard you would have expected, you should, before you point out the problems, check what you asked for. It’s wholly possible that the problem is the way you communicated rather than what’s been delivered. If that’s the case, apologise and ask for changes. Always assume that you’ve failed to express your needs properly before assuming that they’ve screwed up!

If they’ve genuinely done a rotten job, you should be gentle in your criticism if this is a first offence; you’re probably going to want them to help you again in the future. I’m not going to go into details about how to manage people to deliver results as that’s not really the point of this article.

So, a challenge for you. Look at the tasks you’ve got and think to yourself, am I in a position to delegate any of these tasks to someone else and will that save me time that I could spend on something more valuable?

Go on, look at your to do list… now!

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Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.