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Overcoming Barriers to Delegation

By Tracy Tsai, ACC, CPC

As a leader, delegation is one of the most important tools that we have. It is a crucial leadership skill, as it creates space for us to focus on the strategic components of our role. When we effectively delegate to team members, it also provides opportunities for them to grow.

However, delegating effectively can also be one of the most difficult things for leaders to do. Much of this can be attributed to our underlying beliefs about delegation. For example, you might resist delegating because you think it would take too long to teach someone else, and that it would be quicker just to do it yourself. Or you might not trust that others would complete the work as well as you would, or in the way that you want it done. In other words, “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself!”

You might also feel badly about delegating because you see it as overburdening others. Research from Columbia Business School shows that women are more likely than men to feel guilty about delegating, and are also more likely to view delegation as aggressive and assertive. Another belief that can hold you back from delegating is seeing delegation as a sign of weakness. You may fear that others think you aren’t capable of handling the responsibilities on your own. Delegating also requires planning and time, and when you’re already overwhelmed with work, it can seem like just another item on your never-ending to-do list.

So what can leaders do to overcome these barriers to delegation?

1. Understand your role as a leader

Many leaders are initially promoted to managerial positions based on their performance as individual contributors. We tend to hold onto our prior responsibilities, as they are what helped us advance in the first place. But as your leadership responsibilities increase, it’s important to acknowledge that the job of a manager is fundamentally different. As a manager, your role is no longer about personal achievement, but rather about developing others in a way that ultimately benefits your team, and the broader organization. One way to start is by getting clear on what your company values in its leaders and aligning that with your own definition of leadership (e.g., ability to develop talent, set a strategic vision, motivate and influence others, etc.). Understanding your role in the context of your company’s values, as well as your own, can help you break free of your “old” definitions of success and help you create new ones that better serve you in your current position.

When you begin to understand that delegation is a critical part of your role as a leader, you’ll be able to reframe your beliefs in the context of your new goals and debunk some of those fears you might have had about delegating. This will take time, but once you internalize the fact that your role now requires you to think and behave differently, you’ll be better able to accomplish the following tactical steps to delegating effectively.

How to Delegate

2. Take inventory and evaluate resources

The number of items on your to-do list can be overwhelming, so where do you begin? Start by looking over the work you have in the upcoming few weeks and take inventory. Resist the urge to consider any task to be “too big” or “too small.” Make note of which projects or tasks are higher priority, based on either importance or urgency.

Before you start thinking about who to delegate each task to, take time to get familiar with each team member’s strengths and development needs. Consider each person’s level of knowledge, skills, preferred work style, and workload. Understanding each of these factors will help you match the most appropriate person to the task.

For example, if you identify someone on your team who you know is eager to learn, or someone who you think is ready to take on responsibilities outside of their comfort zone, you may want to delegate something to them that will be a “stretch” assignment. This will likely motivate them, as it communicates that you acknowledge their desire to grow and that you believe in their abilities. Another approach is to “delegate your weaknesses” to those on your team for whom that activity is a strength.

3. Communicate the “why”

When delegating to a team member, clearly communicate what needs to be done, why it’s important to the organization and why you selected this person. Also let them know why you think doing this task or learning these skills will benefit their career.

The “why” is particularly important, as team members who understand why a particular task matters and the role they play in it are more likely to succeed. By providing them with the context on what purpose this task serves in the bigger picture and why it matters, their levels of motivation and commitment to the task increases.

If feelings of guilt are holding you back from delegating, instead of viewing delegation as a “hand-off” of your responsibilities to someone else, consider reframing delegation as a partnership or collaboration with your direct report. Identify the connection between their success and yours, and by clearly communicating to them what that connection is, and the greater purpose behind the task, you’ll foster a mutual feeling that you’re “in this together.” When it’s understood that you’re driving towards a common goal together, there is accountability and support, which creates a sense of trust. Research shows that when trust is present, people embrace the purpose, goals and objectives of their team. They collaborate willingly and are empowered to do their best work.

How to Delegate

4. Set milestone meetings.

Once you’ve delegated tasks to each team member, it’s tempting to want to check in frequently, especially if one of your beliefs about delegation is that no one can do this better than you can! However, leaders who check in too frequently risk becoming micromanagers, eroding the trust that you’re seeking to build with your team members. It’s important to give them the time and space to do the work.

One way to do this is to set milestone meetings with your team member at the onset of the project or task. Together, break down the project into smaller pieces, and identify the key milestones. By agreeing on the milestones and due dates ahead of time, you can eliminate the need to micromanage. Also, doing this exercise in partnership will give the team member a sense of accountability. It’s also important to establish what “success” looks like for the task or project. This way, you will be less focused on “how” it’s being done but rather “what” is being accomplished.

During the milestone meetings, recognize the progress that has been made, and provide guidance where needed. Don’t focus on whether it’s being done exactly the way you would have done it. Remember that each team member has different strengths and work styles, and as long as they are hitting their milestones, give them the freedom to be creative. Allowing them to have some control over their process and decision making will not only help them develop their skills, but will lead to higher levels of confidence, engagement and success.

The key is to achieve a careful balance between giving people enough space to utilize their unique abilities, while still supporting them in a way that ensures that the task is done correctly and effectively.

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5. Recognize the work that has been done

Recognize the work that has been done. As a leader, give credit where credit is due. When you delegate work, be transparent about who is doing the work and credit them by name in meetings and written communications. Giving recognition informs the rest of the organization what your team has accomplished and increases the visibility of individuals on your team.

Recognition is also highly motivational for the individual and can be a key factor when it comes to employee retention. In a 2022 report by Achievers Workforce Institute, 52% of employees say they stay in a job because they feel valued and supported. In a separate survey, a lack of recognition was cited as the third-most common reason employees choose to leave their employers. When you praise those you delegate to for work well done, it builds self-confidence and promotes efficiency, both of which can help them succeed on their next delegated task.

Of course, if the work is not satisfactory, provide constructive feedback along the way (at milestone meetings) and debrief once the project is done to identify development opportunities and areas for improvement going forward.

Successful delegation requires a shift in mindset, as well as a lot of patience, but this skill is critical to both your success as a leader, and ultimately to the success of your team and organization. The process of delegation entails getting clear on your goals as a leader, identifying what work can be delegated, matching the best people for the task, and building a culture of trust and support along the way. Once you’re able to delegate more effectively, you’ll be freed up to work on more strategic initiatives and tasks that are of highest priority to you, and your team members will have the opportunity to work on challenging assignments that help them to grow.

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