The Art of Delegation

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Two decades ago, as a first-time manager, I was green and had much to learn. Management had looked easy when viewed from the outside. Many times had I assured myself that, given the opportunity to lead, I would never make the same seemingly dim-witted, hasty, or unwise blunders that I had witnessed or been subjected to. Yes, I would direct my future staff and conduct myself with enlightenment and common sense, never forgetting the negative examples I had witnessed over the years. Quite simply, I pledged to do a better job as a manager. It was a commendable yet lofty goal; one that I found much easier to proclaim than to perform.

I walked down the hall with my boss, a man whom I respected, yet feared; loyally loved, yet occasionally detested. Publicly I defended him, yet privately was confounded by his seemingly inexplicable demands and thoughtless pronouncements. He was the source of countless frustrations while offering inadequate praise and encouragement. He had just given me yet one more assignment, a task that I didn’t have time to do.

I protested at his directive, insisting that I already had too much on my plate. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Just delegate it.” I mentally reviewed the capabilities and level of expertise of my charges. Although a group of capable young technologists, none of them, I concluded, were ready for a project of this magnitude or capable of completing it in way that would meet my boss’s high standards and exacting expectations.

“But there is no one I can delegate it to,” I objected plaintively.

“Do you want to know the secret of delegation?” he inquired. There was a twinkle in his eye. I moved closer and held my breath, expecting the secret of managerial nirvana. My expecting eyes were all the encouragement he needed to continue. “It’s simple,” he instructed, “Just look for your busiest guy and give the project to him!” I was dumbfounded at the seemingly ridiculousness and unsound nature of his great “insight.” Wisely, I said nothing and he continued. “You see, the busiest guy is the guy who gets things done; that is always who you want to delegate to.”

Inside I was seething, but outwardly I kept quiet, giving a comprehending look, a respectful nod, and a faint smile. His deputation of me and dissemination of knowledge now complete, he strode down the hallway to his next victim, while I gratefully ducked into my office and closed the door.

His air of acumen angered me on multiple levels. First, I had yet another project to attend to. Second, it was illogical and unfair; delegating to the busiest employee would only serve to make them more busy, setting them up to be the leading candidate for the next project. Lastly, and on a grander level, I realized that as the busiest of those under his command, I was, and would forever be, his “go to guy.”

There had to be a better way. It took a while, some investigative reading, and a lot of trial and error, but I eventually came to understand the art of delegating. Delegation is something all managers need to do. Unfortunately it is easier said than done. Many who attempt it are unhappy with the results, often accepting sub-par outcomes or completely giving up. Sadly, successful delegation requires an initial investment of time, often more time than for you to do the work yourself. If that is the case, why bother? Quite simply because once you have taught your employees on how to receive and complete delegated tasks, you can realize a huge savings of time as you empower them, allowing them to grow as individuals and to contribute to your organization’s success. As such, delegation is well worth the extra effort to do it right. A five step procedure paves the way to successful delegation.

The first step is to select the right people. A person who has proven themselves in small things can be given greater responsibilities with increased latitude. However, until they have proven their ability to responsibly and effectively handle assignments, the scope of their tasks must be kept small and somewhat trivial. For example, if they can’t arrive at work on time, is there any reason to assume they can accomplish something more challenging? To give unproven employees a chance to substantiate themselves, start with small assignments (yes, the first one might be to arrive on time) such as sorting mail, stuffing envelopes, or making copies. Next, they can graduate to placing an office supply order (you select the items and quantities, they call it in), or processing UPS shipments. Each time they successfully complete a delegated assignment, they can be rewarded with additional responsibilities; each time they fail to properly or timely complete a task, they must be confronted. All employees should be trained to handle delegated projects at a basic level. If they are unable to handle even the most basic task, you should seriously ask yourself why you are still employing them. Some employees will advance to assignments of medium difficulty, while a few will be superstars, able to work independently and largely unsupervised. Therefore, match the task to the employee based on their record.

Once the correct employee has been selected, ensure they have the proper tools and knowledge to do the job. If the work requires a computer, is one available for them? If it requires a program, do they know how to use it? Next, consider whether they have the background knowledge to complete the project. It is easy to assume that key details are common knowledge or to oversimplify a project. Often, an employee needs instruction or training before they can successfully navigate an assignment. Not only do you need to ensure they have been given this information, but also to provide it in the ideal format for them. Some people learn best in written form, others want to be shown, and some need to do it; occasionally a combination is appropriate. Regardless, asking an employee to embark on a project without the proper resources is setting them up for failure.

Thirdly, give them a clear timetable for completion. Saying that a project is “urgent” means different things to different people. Saying “when you have time” can likewise be misinterpreted. When giving a deadline, you cannot be too specific. Examples include, “I require your written overview on my desk every Monday by 5 p.m.”, or “I need your preliminary work by the end of the day on Thursday, the 12th.”

Next — and this is the hard part – hold them accountable. Follow-up needs to be consistent and expected; let them know ahead of time that you will be checking on their progress. Also assure them that you are available for questions. If they do unsatisfactory work or miss a deadline, there must be a reaction. This could be merely asking them to explain what happened. Perhaps, despite your best efforts, instructions were incomplete or training was insufficient; then shoulder the blame yourself and correct the oversight. Sometimes, they need to be made aware of the ramifications: “Because you did not complete this on time, we lost the client, which will cost us X hundred dollars.” If you correctly follow step one (select the right people and allow them to prove themselves) only in the rarest of cases will disciplinary action be required or even appropriate. The story is told of a loyal, responsible, and trusted employee who made an error costing his company $330,000 dollars. He submitted his resignation. “What!” his manager exclaimed, “You can’t quit now; we just invested a third of a million dollars in your training!” What confidence and assuredness this must have instilled in that employee.

Lastly, as they prove themselves in small things, begin giving them bigger and more important assignments. Now you can then begin to phase out much of your effort in the “accountability” step. Yes, they still need to be held accountable, but it gradually becomes ancillary to the process of delegation, instead of integral to it.

If you follow these steps consistently, all employees will become better at responding to delegation; some employees will even advance to the point of self-determination, where you no longer need to assign things to them, they take the initiative to do what needs to be done without your input or direction. This is delegation at its finest!

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at

[From Connection Magazine May 2005]

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