Being a manager means taking on more responsibilities and also letting go of others. However, as much as we know delegation is a good thing – we still struggle to do it well. Delegation provides your team with learning opportunities, development projects, balances workload and gives room for new insights. As a manager though you may be reluctant to overload people, to let go of tasks that you enjoy, or to invest the time in showing someone the ropes.
The price of deciding to do everything yourself because it’s ‘quicker than explaining what’s needed to someone else’ can cause delays in processes and projects, extra cost and huge stress – not just for you but for your team. So learning to delegate well is an essential skill for managers.
Effective delegation is not simply about handing over a task. It’s about understanding the competence and commitment of the person you want to delegate to – how experienced are they at doing this work? Have they ever done anything like this before? How signed up are they to the task? Only then do you know what responsibility you can give that person to do the task, and how much authority it’s reasonable to let them assume.
So, what’s the difference between responsibility and authority in this context?
Few managers have a challenge with what responsibility they are handing over with a task. “It’s up to you, Ahmed, to ensure the data collection is completed by the end of the month.” “Maggie, it’s your job to come up with the implementation plan.”
Where new managers are more likely to fall down is in being clear about what authority they are handing over with the responsibility. Can Ahmed pull in other members of staff to help him complete the data collection without asking for permission? Can he move the deadline? Can Maggie employ an external consultant to work with her on the implementation plan without asking for permission? Will the plan be for her to sign off? In other words, what level of authority do Ahmed and Maggie have?
There are five levels of authority you can delegate, ranging from Level 1 – assigning actions with no authority, to Level 5 – do whatever you need to do to get this done. We go through each level in more detail below.
Here are the actions. They need to be completed by the deadline. Do you have any questions?
What it means:
As a manager you are holding onto the authority, and giving responsibility for closed, tightly-defined tasks. You need to agree the timescale as part of the delegation and ensure the task is understood.
“Katy, go and talk to the donor within the next week and find out exactly what happened when they called to make a donation. Just listen, don’t make excuses for us. Come back and tell me what she says straight away. Once I know what happened, I’ll decide how we should respond the same day you report back. Do you have any questions?”
Identify the actions you want to take and why. Send them to me by this deadline. I will review them. When I approve, take action.
What it means:
As a manager you are handing over some responsibility not only to explore the issue, but to define what options exist to take the tasks forward. However, you hold on to the responsibility to decide which option to take. You need to agree the timescale as part of the delegation.
“Max, we need to improve the supply chain for food parcels reaching the refugee camp. By the end of the month, let me see a list of options for how we might make improvements. Tell me which one you’re recommending and why. I will decide whether or not we should implement it. I’ll need a day to think it through.”
Let me know what you intend to do. I will review your decision by this deadline. Take action after the deadline unless I say otherwise.
What it means
As a manager you are saying “keep me informed and I will flag any issues with you.” It gets harder for you at this point to tread the fine line between giving the person room to manoeuvre, while also ensuring as best you can that they don’t fail. It’s possible to avoid the latter if you agree key points in the timescale, when you need updates on progress and where you might say “no.”
“Josef, I’m really happy with the reports you have been producing. I don’t need to see drafts for any standard cases. However, if something new happens or we have an incident, then I do need to see those before the reports are finalised. Keep me updated on your progress and if you need me to review give me three days’ notice. I’ll take a look in that timeframe and if I have any concerns or suggestions, I’ll let you know.
Go ahead as and when you see fit. Let me know what you did and how it went afterwards.
What it means:
As a manager you are delegating responsibility for the task and giving the person the authority to take any action they deem necessary to complete it. Your interest in finding out how they went about doing the task after the event is partly because you are still ultimately accountable for the success or failure of the task or project. And partly so you can help them reflect on their actions and take learning for the future.
“Monika, take the lead on the cross-county action group. You’ll be representing us in the project outcomes meeting. I’ve scheduled a catch up for after the meeting, so we can review what you did.”
Go ahead as and when you see fit. No further contact with me is required.
What it means:
Before you use Level 5 just do a quick check to make sure you are not simply abdicating responsibility. At this level, you are handing over both responsibility and authority for the whole project/task. Be very sure it is appropriate. This level can be seen as allocating the task to the person, as a task fully within their remit.
“Alex, the client is all yours. Good luck.”
So how do you decide which level of authority is the most appropriate to delegate for the person and the situation?
There are three key factors to consider:
Does the person you are delegating to have the right skills and experience to be able to carry out the task or project wholly without your input or will they need help? The key to delegation is assessing this correctly. If you delegate at too high a level, you will set people up to fail; if you delegate at too low a level, you will make too little use of the talents and abilities of your people, and they will feel unduly restricted.
Is there time available for learning or experimentation in carrying out the task or project? If time is short, even the most experienced and committed person will need a clearly defined framework to work to.
What is at stake if this project or task goes wrong? Some projects are high risk because failure will be very public (a mix-up over the arrangements for a large event; a poor quality annual report) or because there are high stakes (a major new contract with a new customer; a funding opportunity you can’t afford to lose). It’s advisable specify success criteria in these cases – further if the team or individual is less experienced.
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