As a Manager, at some point in your career, you’ve likely received the following feedback from your boss: “You’re doing great, but you need to delegate more!” Sound familiar? If you answered yes, your internal dialogue at the time was probably saying something like this: “Cool. Delegate more. Yup. Got it. I can do that. That’s easy. I’ll just delegate more – obviously!” 

The overall problem though is that after receiving this feedback, most of us don’t stop to think long and hard about what it actually means. What does it mean to delegate? How do you delegate well? If you delegate, do you follow up? When do you follow up? What kinds of things should you be delegating? Is it possible to over-delegate?

Before we get too far into this, perhaps let’s make sure we’re all working from the same definition and understanding of what it means to delegate. 

What is Delegation

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word delegate as: to give part of your work, power or authority to somebody in a lower position than you. Somewhat hilariously, their example of the word delegate used in a sentence is this: Some managers find it difficult to delegate. You don’t say?

Learning to delegate: a personal example

My own personal story with delegating is from several years back when I was a relatively new boss in charge of a small high-functioning team of communication and publishing professionals at a non-profit. At any given time, we had about 20 projects on the go, but we were a well-oiled machine and everyone was busy working on their individual pieces of the puzzle and then coming together as a team to make all the awesomeness just happen – or so I thought! 

One day during our performance review cycle, I was receiving in-person feedback from each one of my direct reports. Yes, you read that right. My staff measured my performance too and gave me feedback about my work too – feedback and performance discussions are not just one-way!

Anyway, on this particular day, one of my staff members was sitting in front of me talking about some of the projects he thought went well under my leadership that year and some of the ones that had hiccups. I had my head down taking notes and then he paused, so I looked up. He looked me straight in the eye and said: 

“You know Sam, you’re a great boss but you can’t do it all. Well, I mean you can if you want to – but you’re going to burn out. You need to use us more. We can handle more. You don’t need to do it all yourself.” 

I was floored. Up until that point I really had thought I was a good delegator! I thought I was using my team well, doling out tasks, and keeping everything moving forward. But according to my team, there was room for improvement. 

From the moment I got that feedback, I started examining my management style and my delegation skills (or lack thereof) and I tried to understand my actions and how they were either helping or hurting my team. Here’s what I learned in a nutshell:

Contrary to what you might believe, and the dictionary definition for that matter, delegating is not just about entrusting specific activities or tasks to your direct reports which they finish and then give back to you for review or approval – it’s much more than that. To delegate well, means to manage well and a specific approach is required – one that balances the assignment of tasks, autonomy, workload tracking, clarity about the task, following up, and coaching too. 

To be successful, the balance has to be just right, so naturally, I’ve called this approach the Goldilocks Approach. Ok fine – it’s a little unoriginal, but I promise you it works and it’s easy to remember. 

How to delegate effectively: 5 tips for managers

The Goldilocks Approach to delegating is exactly what you would imagine it would be – not too much, not too little, just the right mix. Here’s what it looks like in practice by way of a mnemonic (See? Easy to remember!).

1 G = Give clear direction, a reason, and a deadline

When you’re thinking about delegating a task to a direct report, it’s vital to first think about how that task will be received. Will the direct report understand the task? Might they have questions? Are they likely to think this is a make-work project or will they understand how this task fits into the overall work of the team? 

Research shows that employees are more engaged when they understand the overall goals of the company and how their work connects to those goals.

So, when delegating a task, it is important to ensure that you explain the overall purpose of the task and give clear direction about your expectations for completing the task. Giving a deadline is also key. 

  • Don’t do this: “Hey, are you able to re-run the analytics on this data? Thanks.”
  • Instead, do this: “Hey, are you able to re-run the analytics on this data? I’ve been scheduled into a Managers meeting tomorrow afternoon and there is one VP who always digs into the data. I specifically want to be sure we’ve pulled out all the insights related to the recent project launch in case I get questions about it. Any chance you could finish this by tomorrow morning?” 

2 O = Only one thing can be a priority, so examine workload

The word priority can roughly be defined as “something that is regarded as more important than another thing.” In business we often talk about “multiple priorities” and our “list of priorities,” but in reality, only one thing can be a priority at any given time. In order to ensure that your direct reports do not become overwhelmed with multiple tasks, or are confused about which task to complete first, it’s your job as a Manager to provide a bit of guidance and examine their workload. 

  • Don’t do this: “Hey can you add this to your task list? It’s one of the key priorities for this quarter. I’m not going to get to it and I think it will be a great project for you!”
  • Instead do this: “Hey in our meeting this afternoon can we talk about a new project? I think you’ll be excited about it but I want to take a look at your workload and ongoing projects to see how we might be able to fit this in.”

As a Manager, you might also consider creating a team culture where you encourage your direct reports to ask clarifying questions about their workload like: “I’d love to work on that assignment. I’m also working on the project launch and the social media campaign for next week though. If I take on this new assignment, can we talk about how it fits in?”

You might also be wondering how to keep on top of your employee’s workload and how exactly to know when they can handle more or need less? In my experience weekly team meetings are a must.

Pro Tip

Use Fellow’s action items feature to assign tasks and keep track of your team’s workload!

manage meeting tasks and action items

3 L = Label the task properly

This part is actually pretty simple and often overlooked, but thinking about the type of task, or how you would “label” the task is a vital initial check for Managers before they delegate a task. 

Most people agree that all work tasks, or at least a hefty chunk, should be connected in some way to the overall company’s vision, mission, and strategic goals. However, there are also definitely times to chase those shiny objects, unexpected opportunities, and ideas you had in the shower. So, when you’re delegating, it’s important to think about whether the task you’re giving away aligns with the team’s goals, or whether it’s a bit of a creative side-project that might not have legs. 

I’ve made this mistake more than once in my career and I can tell you it’s a terrible feeling when your team member puts their heart and soul into a creative side-project project thinking it’s a life-changing key company goal, only for their work to be shelved and die a slow painful death. So, when delegating be clear about how you label or define the task for your direct report. 

  • Don’t do this: “Hey, so I had this idea the other day, and I was thinking that there might be an overlooked element for the launch of our new project. If I’m right it could be huge! Can you look into it for me?” 
  • Instead, do this: “Hey, so I had this idea the other day, and I was thinking that there might be an overlooked element for the launch of our new project. If I’m right it could be huge, but if I’m wrong it could be a few hours of our lives we’ll never get back. I think it’s definitely worth looking into, but let’s agree that you only spend about 3 hours on this before reporting back to me so we can see if it’s worth proceeding, OK?”

4 D = Do follow up

Hmm, what to say about following up? How about this: Always follow up. 

On a more serious note, if you have delegated a task or an activity and you don’t follow up, one of three things is likely:

  1. Your direct report has either forgotten about the task, or has moved it to the bottom of the pile until you mention it, at which time they will start furiously working on it. 
  2. Your direct report is pouring so much time and effort into this delegated task that what you’re going to get back is probably way more than you asked for – in a bad way. 
  3. Your direct report is doing a fabulous job.

Instead of crossing your fingers and hoping for number 3, follow up. One-on-one meetings and regular team meetings are good times to check in and see how everything is going. If it’s a larger or a longer project, ask for touch-base meetings to be scheduled once they have had a chance to dig in, about half way through, and then again near completion. 

5 I = I am responsible for reviewing, coaching, and supporting only 

Ok, so this is the extra important stuff, and, at least initially, I was terrible at it. When you delegate something, it’s no longer yours – you have literally given the task and the autonomy to someone else. However, and this is a big however, as a Manager you are still ultimately responsible for both the task and your employee – it’s a delicate line to walk. So, over the years, to remind myself I needed to get better at this, my mantra became review, support, coach

Review

As a Manager, you review the work and give input. You do not take the work back. 

Coach

When you review the work, you must also give specific and direct feedback, explaining your suggested changes or additions to help your direct report learn and improve over time. Remember, delegating isn’t just about getting something off your plate, it’s also a chance for others to learn from you so that they might be able to take even more off your plate in the future.  

Support

As a Manager, once you delegate something, it’s important to support your employee and have their back until that task or activity comes to an end. As an example, let’s say your employee made a decision related to the delegated task that you probably wouldn’t have made yourself. In public, it is critical to support your employee and their decision. In private, it’s totally acceptable to talk to your employee about what you might have done differently so they can improve for next time. The bottom line is that your employee should always feel that they have complete autonomy and authority over the activity once it has been delegated.  

Conclusion

Now some of you might be thinking – Wow, this is a lot of work! Yes. Delegating is part of managing and managing people is hard work!

Others might be thinking – Why’d she stop at I? What about L-O-C-K-S? Truthfully, sometimes less is more 😉 


In closing, remember: Your job as a manager isn’t about barking orders, commanding a room, and getting people to do the stuff you hate doing. Your main job as a Manager is to help your people grow and perform well so that your company can also grow and perform well.  So, the next time you’re delegating a task or activity, stop for a moment, reflect a bit, and make sure your approach is just right.