Leadership Insights | The 8 Principles of Effective Delegation

What’s Your Delegation Score?

Delegation isn’t just a handoff so you can walk away and do something else.

It is a critical leadership skill you must master if you want to expand your reach, take control of your time and achieve the work-life harmony you’re seeking.

  • How often have you wondered why a project went wrong, or why someone never finished the task you were counting on them to finish?
  • How many times have you complained about projects that you’re managing … missing their deadlines, going over budget (not under budget very often, huh?) and not getting done as you expected?
  • How did you feel when you were called on the carpet by YOUR boss wanting to know why the project you’re handling is stalled?
  • Why didn’t your delegation succeed?

Learn the 8 Principles of Effective Delegation.

When we’ve delegated some or all of a project to someone else and it isn’t working, we’re embarrassed … and probably a little teed off … but we’re also too often thinking about the wrong things as we tick off all the reasons why the people on our team have let us down:

  • “Damn that John, he just can’t be counted on” … or,
  • “She doesn’t get it” … or something like,
  • “Why can’t they ever seem to follow through?”

The other line of thinking goes something like,

  • “If I had done it myself, it would have been done on time and on budget. Next time, I’ll do it myself so I know it will be done right.”

That might work on occasion, but if you’re building a team and a larger organization, that approach must be the exception NOT the rule.

Yes, the delegation process is eminently frustrating.

We think we’ve clearly spelled out everything that’s required to complete a project and that getting it done should be a no-brainer.

But, do we really spell it all out … clearly and with appropriate guidelines… to make certain we’ve set the project on the right course to succeed?

Aren’t those the times you wish that your delegation skills were a little more practiced?

This post didn’t start out to be so long.

I didn’t really want it to be this long, either, but as it grew, I realized I had no choice if I was really going to help you strengthen one of the most vexing problems that leaders face … How to Effectively Delegate.

So, while this post may be what some call an “Epic Post”, Delegation is also an EPIC CHALLENGE that leaders and managers face every single day.

You may need to read it several times to begin to internalize some of these principles.

To help you strengthen this skill, I’ve also created a simple guide or checklist you can follow to embed these 8 Principles of Effective Delegation in your Leadership Toolkit. Keep reading to access the link.

Delegation Can Solve Two Major Challenges.

Barely a day goes by when I don’t hear from a CEO about the unremitting challenges they face in successfully putting to work two of the most important tools in their Leadership Toolkit:

    1. Improving their Personal Productivity, and
    2. Achieving Accountability across the organization.

Successful delegation helps to solve both of these challenges.

It not only enhances your personal productivity allowing you to get more done, but it reinforces the accountability that is essential to empower your people and make them and your organization more successful.

The reason delegation fails is a flawed or incomplete process of delegation.

We learn quickly on our leadership journey that it’s a critical tool that everyone expects us to know and use but … (shhh … this will be our secret)  … no one ever taught us HOW.

We don’t want to fail.

There are lots of reasons why we hesitate to delegate in the first place, aren’t there?

1. We don’t want to fail … and we don’t want our people to fail … so too often we hang on to projects, figuring that we’ll handle them ourselves and avert failure.

It works to a point … to the point of our exhaustion because we can’t do it all ourselves.

2. We’re also reluctant to delegate things we don’t understand.

Of course, that’s where we should be delegating, but we’re worried that we don’t know enough to make decisions about whether the project is succeeding or not.

What usually results is that the project doesn’t get assigned, doesn’t get done or flounders for lack of direction.

Does This Only Apply to Large Organizations?

Is this just for large company executives? Hardly.

And, no, this isn’t just a challenge for inexperienced business leaders.

It’s for every single one of us. If you’re a young entrepreneur … or any entrepreneur, for that matter … or self-employed as a solo-preneur … you will be delegating a project or task at some point, or your business won’t get very far.

Even if your entire team is virtual … maybe more so if it’s virtual … you’ll need to make sure that all of the members of your far-flung empire are marching to the same beat.

You’ll need to provide all of these elements … clear objectives, timelines, milestones … and much more.

These issues are older than Moses.

You could reach back almost 2,500 years ago to the advice given to Moses by his father … who explained to Moses that he needed to share the workload because he was wearing himself out trying to manage all of the conflicts among the tribes he was leading.

(When you need to deflect someone’s comment about something not going quite right, just remind them that this challenge has been around since before Moses parted the Red Sea … or something like that.)

Take some comfort that this is not a new problem or one where you’re the only one struggling.

Do you see why this is an epic challenge for all of us?

Keep reading to learn the 8 Principles of Effective Delegation. When you’re finished, be sure to download the valuable Delegation Guide as a convenient reference to strengthen this critical skill.

WHY you’re delegating in the first place?

Let’s start with the premise that we know exactly WHY we need to delegate and can pretty easily determine WHEN to delegate.

What we don’t really understand is HOW to do it.

Here are the 8 Principles of Effective Delegation:

1. Set Clear Expectations.

If you don’t start from here, your chances of successful delegation are about the same as the likelihood that you’ll be the #1 choice in the NFL draft.

Yes, the odds are that bad because if you can’t take the time … and, I really mean “if you don’t MAKE the time” … to spell out your expectations so that the person to whom the job is assigned understands them,  you shouldn’t be surprised when the result turns out very differently from what you expected … and it’s rarely on the better side of it.

So, make sure you explain the WHAT, WHEN and WHY so that the goals and objectives … and the milestones and timelines … are clear … CRYSTAL CLEAR … and then, from there, let your people figure out HOW to get it done.

They may not take the same approach that you would, but give them a chance.

As we’ll discuss below, you will still be monitoring their progress along the way, while giving them some room to maneuver so they can find the best way to get it done.

2. Help them out.

It stands to reason, in addition to Setting Clear Expectations, that you will also be more successful by giving as much guidance as you can to improve the chances for success.

After you give them the WHAT, WHEN and WHY, make sure that you take the time to offer any tips and techniques they might apply to this specific situation.

Any insights you can provide that will help them achieve the goals – on time and on budget – helps both of you. Using S.M.A.R.T. goals is the best way to approach this.

If you can share experiences with them that have helped you along the way … errors or oversights you made when learning this process, or tips that might help them stay on task and on time … it will reward both of you with a more successful outcome.

At a minimum, you’ve probably learned what doesn’t work so well, so share that with them.

Help them become a great partner in achieving the desired results.


3. Differentiate between formulation and execution.

There’s a big difference between asking someone to create a plan or strategy and asking them to execute a plan that’s already established.

We all know people who are great at carrying out a plan but less effective in creating a plan. They are terrific at following the outline of what’s already been decided, but are less effective at imagining other possibilities or thinking strategically about the right path to take.

This is related to the following point, but it’s worth a separate mention because if you look carefully, you’ll find this distinction between “formulating” a plan and “executing” a plan to be a common challenge you’ll face in delegating assignments.

4. Is the assignment a stretch or directly in a person’s wheelhouse?

Do they have the tools and experience to be successful?

Are they strategic thinkers or are they better at grinding out the details? (See above.)

Your customary “go to” person may be supremely reliable, but they may not be sufficiently versatile to handle everything you throw at them. Make sure you choose people carefully for each project you delegate.

To do that, you must be clear about your expectations and the objectives you’re trying to achieve.

As you formulate your plan, carefully assess every person on your team to determine whose skills and experience are best suited to a particular project.

Subplot: You still need a strong leadership team.

Keep reading to learn the 8 Principles of Effective Delegation. When you’re finished, be sure to download the valuable Delegation Guide as a convenient reference to strengthen this critical skill.

Keep in mind, that there’s nothing wrong with delegating to people who are smarter than you.

In fact, the best leaders make certain that they hire the smartest people because they understand the simple premise there’s no one smart enough to know it all.

When you spot a leader who is surrounded by people who are significantly less capable or experienced than they are, you can be pretty sure you’ll find a very insecure leader … and an under-performing team.

5. Implement a penalty free environment in your organization.

It is critical that your team be allowed to experiment and make mistakes … and they must feel free to bring you realistic and honest feedback about their successes as well as their struggles. To accomplish your ultimate goals, you must nurture them as leaders.

It’s your job to keep them between the guardrails without going over the cliff.

A penalty free environment is the only way to encourage and support candid feedback about progress and struggles. If your people believe they’ll be berated for falling short of your expectations, you won’t hear much about the project until it’s too late.

Don’t crucify them for mistakes.

Encourage them to share the good, the bad and the ugly so that they will be as willing to come to you with their mistakes as with their successes.

Show by your example that you support their efforts. That will avoid the surprises and help your team more effectively manage projects and help you become a much more skillful delegator.

6. Beware of the old adage, “Paralysis by Analysis”.

For new executives particularly, there’s a tendency to over-analyze the progress and results of the projects they have delegated.

I’m sure you’ve seen this before – you may have done it yourself – but it surely subverts the entire process. When you are over-analyzing the project, it’s usually a sign that you’re holding on for dear life and not really delegating.

By constantly overwhelming your colleagues with endless analysis, you won’t give them a chance to succeed. Instead, you’ll end up with the monkey on your back.

You’ll be back to completing the task yourself.

Your colleagues will take their foot off the accelerator because you taught them that you will only be satisfied if you do it yourself.

7. Quit micromanaging and start monitoring.

Micromanagement is the ugly stepchild of “paralysis by analysis” … but a more lethal variation.

By micromanaging a task, and not really delegating it, the other person will never take ownership of the assignment. They quickly learn that it won’t be long before they hear from you again about how they’re doing, what they should be doing, why it isn’t done yet, etc.

What you’re really doing is giving the other person a crutch that sends the wrong message: I really got this for you (so it’s okay to limp along).

As  a result, the project won’t move forward as quickly or as effectively as it could because they know you’re standing by to grab it when it falls … and maybe never wanted to give it up in the first place.

Track the ship instead of steering it.

You not only have to let go, but you’ll be more successful if you monitor a set of shared milestones and timetables.

You still have the responsibility to make sure the assignment is completed on time and on budget – but note the word “shared” because you will only succeed if you’ve established shared goals and objectives that both parties agree are … realistically achievable.

8. Reframe your mindset.

The final and very effective technique is to think about delegating the project and NOT the task.

Even better, think about it in terms of delegating the Accountability for the assignment rather than the project or task, so that you can give that person full control of their mission.

Be clear about who’s doing what … and with what level of participation in the project.

You will be watching, monitoring, tracking and getting feedback about their progress, but you don’t need to own the project and you don’t need to micromanage it.

Let them run with it. Hold them accountable by letting them be accountable.


Download the 8 Principles of Effective Delegation

To help you keep these principles in mind, I’ve created a downloadable Guide to the 8 Principles of Effective Delegation that you can use as a reminder of the key principles you should apply to effectively delegate projects and tasks. You can download it by clicking this link.

Keep it on your desk … in your desk … or on your computer desktop … where you can find it easily whenever you’re delegating a project

What’s next?

Delegation is as much an art as a science, but it will become easier the more you do it and the more thoughtfully you implement these principles.

When you apply these principles every day, you’ll not only teach leaders to be better at accepting delegated tasks … you’ll achieve more successful outcomes every time … and become better at delegating them.

You have to be willing to learn this process.

Go ahead and allow your direct reports to make mistakes … to try and fail … and then to pick themselves up and keep moving forward.

Work on teaching them to keep you informed while they continue to achieve progress on the project they own.

Delegation is an art and not a science, but by starting with these 8 Principles of Effective Delegation, you’ll become a much more effective executive and a more successful leader … and the next time the judges show your score, it will look more like the picture below!

Question: What is your greatest challenge in effectively delegating? Would it be helpful to examine it in a future article? Leave your comment below.

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