What we’re talking about

If you're a small business owner or early employee at a startup, it's likely that you’re used to wearing a lot of hats, spinning a lot of plates, or whatever your preferred analogy is for doing a range of different roles across the business. But as the business scales and your team grows there comes a time when, for the sake of your business’ success, you’ll need to hand some of those responsibilities to others. That’ll leave you to focus on the top level, strategic issues facing your business. Enter the art of delegation. 

Why it’s important

No matter how high your opinion is of yourself, one person can't do it all. Your time and energy is limited and if your business needs you to pay attention to more important things, it’s only logical that you’ll have to take your eyes off other aspects to accommodate them. A failure to do that properly will ultimately harm your business. When the brain is overworked and your focus is scattered, it’ll lead to mistakes and decision fatigue; it’s also important that those working for you improve their skill set and gain new responsibilities for their own motivation and progression.

An often-quoted statistic from the late London Business School professor John Hunt states that only 30% of managers believe they can delegate well; and only a third of them is considered a good delegator by their team. Delegation is a vital tool of management that not enough people do well. 

Things to note

Senior leaders need to be more essential and less involved. That means providing strategic direction, setting priorities, and providing thoughtful feedback instead of being a bottleneck, or overly prescriptive about what needs to be done and how exactly it has to happen.

If you're having trouble delegating, it's worth asking yourself why. There are likely emotional reasons underlying any practical ones. If you don't trust others on your team, you might need to remind yourself why you hired them, or make sure you're hiring the right people. If you don't want to let go of tasks you enjoy, you might ask how to make the tasks you're setting aside more enjoyable. Before you start effectively delegating you're going to have to address any feelings or fears you may have subconsciously associated with delegation.

How to delegate work effectively

1. Decide what to delegate. This is the fun part. You'll want to do a careful audit of your current workload and decide which parts someone else can take care of (with a little training or ongoing support). As a leader, it's likely that you can remain in charge of key aspects of strategy setting while handing over some of the day-to-day execution. You should look carefully at tasks that are regularly repeated – once these are delegated, you’ll be able to save time and headspace over a long period.

2. Decide who to delegate to. This is probably the most important task of all. It's not just about picking someone who can do the task, but instead favour choosing someone that could get excited about it; perhaps someone looking for more responsibility or growth opportunities, or someone who is very interested in that area of the business. Of course, they should be capable of completing the work – after some training and with some support.

3. Get them to commit. Once you've decided who you're handing something over to, you need to let them know. This step is crucial. The key to delegating successfully is making sure the person you are delegating to is fully on board – so don't just explain the task, explain why it's important and why they're the ones chosen to take it on. Also, be sure to secure a clear confirmation that they have accepted the task and know they're now responsible for it.

4. Set them up for success. The handover is key. Explain clearly what your expectations are regarding both output and deadlines. People are not mind-readers, so the brief or ask needs to be thoughtful and comprehensive, with no room for confusion. Also, clarify how much ongoing support they would prefer initially – some people prefer more autonomy, and others might want more frequent opportunities for check-ins and feedback. Match the engagement style as closely as you can to what works best for the person you are delegating to.

5. Leave enough time for feedback. Assume things won't go exactly right the first time. This doesn't mean that it was a mistake to delegate – it just means that it might take a little trial and error before the delegatee gets into the full swing of things. To reduce pressure and stress for all parties, no matter how confident you are in your delegatee's ability to complete the task, ensure there is a buffer so you can provide feedback and they can make revisions.

6. Decide what to delegate next. Delegation isn't a one-time task, but an ongoing practice. Leaders in any organisation should always be looking for ways to create space in your work day – finding time for the issues that deserve your attention by passing on work that no longer makes the best use of it.

Key takeaways

A failure to delegate can harm your business, as you won’t be able to give the appropriate focus to the top-level, strategic decisions that affect the overall growth and direction.

How you delegate is almost as important as what you decide to delegate. You need to follow a considered process to make sure the task gets done to a high level – and your delegatee is given the support they need.

Once you’ve delegated a task, you might have to accept a slight drop in standards. But over time, it should get back to the level it was before – or maybe even higher.

Learn more

Listen to a forensic breakdown of delegation, and the psychology surrounding it, at the Manager Tools podcast.

Delve into the fundamental prep you need to do before you begin delegating, through this 10-minute video.

Manage projects, assign tasks and collaborate effectively using Trello, a simple productivity and management app. For handling more complex projects, try Asana.

Create simple step-by-step guides and tutorials for any processes you need to teach others using StepShot.

Understand the five most common mistakes managers make when delegating, through this blogpost.

Read this insightful article from The New York Times about decision fatigue – and find out if you’re suffering from it.

Improve the way you communicate – and persuade – your colleagues by listening to this podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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