"I would never have achieved what I did without learning the art of delegation," Virgin founder and CEO Richard Branson said. Branson credits delegating tasks as key to his success. The first task he delegated was accounting—to a guy named Jack. "I wouldn't have gotten our business off the ground without Jack," Branson said.
"Delegation benefits managers, direct reports, and organizations," Harvard Business Review said. "Yet it remains one of the most underutilized and underdeveloped management capabilities."
With employees quitting jobs at record rates, many due to lack of advancement opportunities, it is time to take a fresh look at delegating for employee retention and leadership development. According to Gallup, just 25 percent of managers have "high levels of delegation talent."
Benefits of Delegation
Executives spend 16 hours a week on administrative tasks. Those tasks include:
Travel and expenses
CRM data entry
Social media posting
These tasks do not require an executive's time. But the benefits of delegating are not just about saving an executive's time. As Richard Branson said, delegation is necessary to achieve your business goals. Business consultancy DDI found that the benefits of delegating include:
3.9 times higher innovation.
4.2 times more loyalty.
2.2 times more likely to promote from within.
1.9 times higher job performance standards.
Resigning employees have repeatedly said that they are looking for growth and development opportunities and that those opportunities seem attractive outside their current jobs.
An academic study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that delegating is inherently empowering to employees because it fosters a culture of continuous feedback that improves job satisfaction and psychological safety.
Why Leaders Resist Delegation
Since 75 percent lack delegation talent (as Gallup found), we need to ask why busy leaders with too much to do continue to resist delegating to others. According to the Society for Human Resources Professionals, the reasons leaders do not delegate are:
They do not think employees can do the job as well as the manager can.
They believe it takes less time to do the work than delegating responsibility.
They do not trust employees' motivation and commitment to quality.
They want to be indispensable.
They like doing everything themselves.
They feel guilty giving more work to overworked staff members.
The reasons leaders avoid delegating become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think your employees cannot do a task as well as you can, you will be correct because the employees will never get a chance to prove you wrong. If you think you can do everything faster, you will be right again because no one will have an opportunity to learn the tasks and produce a better process.
How Do You Know What to Delegate?
The first step in effectively delegating tasks is identifying what to hand off. Here are some questions to ask that can help you decide what to offload.
1. What are you good at (and not good at)?
Start by delegating what you are not good at or do not like to do. Branson realized he was not strong in accounting, and he did not want to learn that skill, so he hired Jack. Branson also differentiates between being up for learning new skills and finding people who are better at them than you are.
"You should try everything at least once," he said. Then, "when I try a new task and find it's not my cup of tea, or I'm simply not cut out to do it, I delegate it to someone who is passionate about the work."
2. Is the work mission critical?
President Dwight Eisenhower famously divided tasks between ones that are urgent and important and those that are important and not urgent. The urgent and important are those mission-critical tasks that you should do yourself. Those that are important and not urgent, like accounting, can be delegated.
Tasks that can be delegated include most of the work executives spend 16 hours a week on—email management, scheduling, travel planning, etc.
3. Does the task require you?
Eisenhower's urgent and important quadrant were his highest priorities. As Eisenhower found, some tasks require you. Identifying those can be tricky. If the project is unique every time and requires a judgment call, you may not want to delegate it.
Decisions on product pricing for large accounts or changes in employee benefits, for example, impact your entire business and team and do not happen frequently enough to be standardized. A question to ask is whether the task is repeatable without your input.
4. Can the task completion process be documented?
If a task is repeatable, can you document the process for someone else to do it? As mentioned, one barrier to delegating is that executives think it will take more time to oversee someone else's work than to do it themselves. It will take some time to get a process out of your head and onto a document, but it is well worth that time.
For example, executives can take up to 12 hours to plan a business trip. There are so many details involved in a business trip—you want to use your preferred airline, hotel, and car rental service, and you have preferences for airports and travel times. You can document all these preferences for someone else to plan for you to review and approve.
5. Do you trust someone else to do this task?
No matter how repeatable a task is, you will have difficulty delegating it if you do not trust someone to handle it on your behalf. In some ways, it is surprising that Richard Branson's first delegated task was accounting, as money is one of the hardest things to trust another person to handle. However, he found the right person.
There is no sense in delegating something if you constantly look over the person's shoulder and micromanage their performance. At the same time, if you do not trust an employee to take over a task, it may be that you have not found the right employee.
How to Start Delegating Tasks
Once you identify tasks to delegate, you need to find the right people to take these tasks off your plate. If you do not have any employees yet, you will have to hire someone; if you have employees with the right skills and/or desire to learn and grow, you can engage with them to take on new responsibilities.
Here is what you need to do to delegate effectively.
Be clear on the desired outcome
Dumping work on someone else is not delegating. People need to understand your expectations of what successful completion means. They will need to know what to complete, by when, and what you will use to evaluate success. It also helps a lot to connect any outcomes to business goals.
You want to empower people to contribute to your success and take ownership of the task. That is a lot more likely to happen if the employee understands why the job matters and how it helps move your business forward.
Provide the necessary resources
If you hire a new employee to take on tasks, they will have the resources they need to be successful. If you are handing off new responsibilities to a current employee, ensure they have access to the training, tools, and guidance to get the work done. Onboarding with the right resources also shows the employee that you are committed to their success and growth.
Give them authority
It would be best to allow employees to use their judgment about accomplishing tasks. There is the way you did it, and there is the way someone else might do it—even better or faster. It would be best if you resisted the urge to micromanage and focus on the outcome, not the methodologies. Let employees use their judgment, and you will see the 3.9x increase in innovation DDI talked about--when you let your people make things better.
You do not want to micromanage, but you need to support your employees and let them know that you have their backs. Especially early on, give them access to you either through scheduled check-ins or a chat channel so that they can ask questions, provide updates, and receive feedback.
Be open to setbacks
Are you a perfectionist? Probably, or you would not resist delegating tasks in the first place. You will be disappointed if you expect perfection right away. No one is perfect, and few people will perfect new functions on day one. You also do not want to communicate that you expect perfection. That will only make employees afraid to fail. If people are scared to bring innovative ideas and practices forward, your innovation will slide.
Effective delegation also requires patience. There is little doubt that delegating will slow you down in the short run. But remember, the goal—is to get routine tasks off your desk. Yes, you could do it faster on your own. Eventually, though, so can someone else. It just might take them a few weeks or months to get there.
The other side of accepting setbacks is celebrating success. When someone nails a new responsibility, let them know and let the rest of the organization know too. Marking success motivates employees to seek growth opportunities. Celebrations also allow people to know whom to go to in the future for the task you just delegated.
Give (and receive) feedback
The researchers for Frontiers in Psychology found that delegation fosters feedback and "feedback plays a critical role in improving job performance." In addition to celebrating success, you will get farther, faster if you give and receive honest feedback. If a task is not correctly completed or on time, constructive feedback will help the employee do better next time. It would be best if you also welcomed input from the employee.
Delegation Mistakes to Avoid
If you fail to delegate, your business will never grow beyond what you can do yourself. But you can also delegate poorly in ways that hurt more than help your business.
Here are some of the delegation mistakes leaders make.
1. Not differentiating delegating and training
Training and delegating are not the same. Training teaches new skills. Delegating, while it may require new skills, is all about building leadership and ownership in your organization and about giving yourself more time to focus on strategic growth. If your employee has taken a course and passed a test to learn a new skill, you have not delegated anything yet.
2. Giving Vague Instructions
If you do not document expectations for outcomes and performance, you will not measure success. It would help if you had a common definition of success that is:
Clear and measurable by all stakeholders
Appropriately resourced with tools and people
Clear to all stakeholders
3. Picking the wrong person
Not everyone is looking for more responsibilities (though that should raise questions about their future). Delegating tasks to people who either do not want more projects or do not have the right attitude or aptitude will generate more work for everyone. In most cases, employees are thrilled to get more responsibility because it offers an upward path.
4. Set it and forget it delegation
You do not wash your hands of a task after you delegate it. The delegated work is important, and quality control is essential. Monitor progress positively to show that you care about the project and the person and want to help them succeed. It is better to step in early when you see mistakes and positively realign to avoid wasted time and damaged morale.
5. Taking all the credit
If your top management is happy with your delegated work, let your team know about it. Not only does recognition boost motivation, but it will help your people develop and grow. And then there is this:
Employees that receive one piece of praise per day are 30 percent more productive.
90 percent of workers say they work harder when they receive positive recognition.
Companies with peer recognition programs have 36 percent better financial performance than companies with only top-down recognition.
Remember to explicitly mention the names of employees who worked along with you on a task or project. They will be more eager to take up delegated tasks next time around.
The High Cost of Poor or Non-Delegation
As employees vote on their job satisfaction with their feet, the cost of inaction when it comes to delegating and promoting workers is high. It takes approximately three times more to recruit, onboard, and train a new employee than upskill and internal hire. In a tight job market, the cost of hiring may be even greater as salaries are increasing to woo needed workers.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.