The Unspoken Rules of Delegating

Delegating can feel uncomfortable or even lazy. But your ability to do it effectively is an indicator of how well you can really lead.

Published: Nov 20, 2019

When you move from rank-and-file employee to manager, it’s not unusual to struggle with the idea of giving someone else your work. Doing so can make you feel lazy or concerned that the job won’t get done on time or in the right way. But delegating effectively is a crucial leadership skill that can ultimately make or break your career. Those who handle the responsibility well will continue to rise up the ranks, while those that don’t could see their career plateau.

Indeed, recent research from Columbia Business School found that women are less likely to delegate than men, which ultimately means they have less time for big-picture work that could propel them to the next level, and they could miss opportunities to mentor their direct reports. Part of that stems from feeling guilty about delegating and conducting short interactions without any small talk involved because of feelings of discomfort passing on work.

When delegating, it’s not uncommon for managers to give more work to star performers. But you want to ensure you’re not overloading them with too many tasks while average talent sits on the sidelines.

At the same time, many millennials, who now make up about 30% of management, say they often don’t know how to say no, and take on too much at a time—which can lead to premature burnout. Here’s how to build the right type of team so that you’re able to confidently hand over work—instead of sticking it on someone just because you don’t have time to do it yourself.

Give context to your request.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when delegating is to throw the work to someone without explaining priorities and workflow, says Stacey Perkins, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Giving this context allows your team members to be invested in the work and understand where their help fits in when your plate begins to fill up. That way, it won’t come as a shock if you need to unload some of your responsibilities.

Don’t bring on the drama.

It’s common, particularly if you’re nervous about passing work along or you feel guilty about putting it on others, to want to apologize for asking them to take on something, or make it seem like you’re ridiculously busy. But that actually can backfire by making you seem too aggressive or like you’re complaining. “Keep the conversation about outcomes and moving the workflow along, rather than who does what,” says Zena Everett, an executive coach based in London. She likens it to a production line, where you treat the tasks you assign as a way to maximize the skills of the team. It’s all just an effort to create a finished product, and the person that receives the extra work simply has the skills to achieve the next step in the line of production.

Allow your delegatees to be assertive.

It’s not uncommon these days for employees to have multiple managers that they must answer to, making it difficult at times for you to understand what else they mush accomplish. That’s why it’s important to allow them to assert themselves to give you a better understanding of what other duties they can and can’t take on, Everett says. That way, they can provide you with insight about when they can accomplish certain goals, which will allow you to set realistic deadlines with the delegated tasks or move something else off their to-do list.

Spread the wealth.

When delegating, it’s not uncommon for managers to give more work to star performers. But you want to ensure you’re not overloading them with too many tasks while average talent sits on the sidelines. “It’s very easy to do,” Perkins says, “but you run the risk of burning that person out.” Part of being a strong leader is developing the entire team, not just the strongest talent. So take steps to talk with weaker employees about how they want to grow in their career, and begin offering opportunities for them to do that as you’re delegating. You might soon realize their hidden talents for certain types of tasks.

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