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Work Culture

It’s all about the mindset: How to delegate in 9 steps


Published on February 14, 2017

You’re swamped at work and staying late every night, but you’re still falling behind. You know you’re supposed to delegate, but you don’t know where to begin. Which colleague should you ask? Would it really save time? And how do you know which tasks to hand off and which to do yourself? Developing smart delegation skills can be tricky, so we rounded up survey results, expert opinion, and proven strategies from across the web. Start with these nine tips.

1. Get into the right mindset

As a manager, delegating is your most important job. Yes, it might be faster—and seem safer—to do a given project yourself. But every time you avoid delegating, you add more to your plate and deprive your team members of an opportunity to grow. This process can create a nasty cycle: more work for you and even less time to delegate. Push yourself out of your week-to-week mentality and think about the year ahead. Even if your team has to slow down to set up effective delegation habits, you’ll save a lot more time in the long run. Finally, don’t worry if more delegation means not getting as much work done personally. Good delegation takes time and preparation, each of which will take you away from your daily tasks. It’s far more important to make your whole team more effective than to squeeze another 20 percent out of yourself.

2. Understand the different types of delegation

Some people don’t like delegating because they’ve had a series of bad experiences. Perhaps you had your team look into three possible software solutions, but they went ahead and bought one without consulting you first. Or maybe you asked a report to help you with a tech recommendation, but all you got back was a mountain of confusing data and more work. Nine times out of 10, you simply haven’t defined what kind of delegation you’re doing. Before delegating your next project, try choosing one of these options first:
  • “Do this exact thing”
  • “Research and let me know”
  • “Research and make a recommendation”
  • “Research, take action, but keep me informed”
  • “Just go for it…no need to check back in”
Sometimes, you just need your report to accomplish a simple task, like delivering a package or checking a price. Other times, you want an informed recommendation—or even actual action—before even hearing back. Once you and your report are on the same page about the type of delegation, you’ll be less likely to be surprised by the results.

3. Give people real responsibility, not a list of tasks

Your co-workers will be most happy to help when you hand over real responsibility. That means giving them the power to make decisions, the freedom to solve problems their own way, and ownership over the results, good or bad. The flip side is delegating task lists: a series of errands or stack of busywork you simply don’t want to deal with. Unfortunately, this sort of delegation is less effective. Your reports won’t care as much about the results, you’ll only save a small amount of time, and your team won’t be much better off once the tasks are done. Delegating grunt work is still fine, but your reports should feel empowered to think of novel solutions. Can they come up with a better way to get the mindless work done? Can they use technology to do it faster? The more flexibility you give your reports, the more you’ll be pleased with the results.

4. Provide key info at the outset

When it comes to delegation in management, it’s tempting to hand off projects quickly so you don’t have to think about them anymore. But before you do, make sure your reports have enough context to get the job done. This might mean giving them a short list of colleagues with special background knowledge on a relevant subject. Maybe it’s including a few links to existing research. Or perhaps you can send notes from last year’s version of the same assignment. Regardless, the goal is to set your reports on the right path. It’s okay for them to work out the details themselves, but they shouldn’t spend the first few days headed entirely in the wrong direction. Sometimes, all it takes is a 10-minute conversation to ensure your reports have the basic info to get off to a good start.

5. Delegate to the most junior employee possible

Instead of thinking about delegation as a way to pass off work, think about it as an opportunity to give junior hires more responsibility. The further down the chain you can hand responsibility, the faster new employees can grow, and the more time managers can stay focused on higher-level, more strategic projects. Encourage your own reports to delegate too—just because you’re passing them a project doesn’t mean they have to do it all themselves. Finally, avoid the pitfalls of “delegating up.” Sometimes, your reports might try to pass projects up to you, convinced that a more senior employee will do a better job. Think carefully before agreeing to take on their request. Typically, they just need permission from you to take on even more responsibility.

6. Push questions back to your reports

You’ve just delegated a big project, but you quickly find yourself drowning in questions. As you field one query after another, you soon feel like you’re doing the all work yourself, after all. Instead of answering every question, try pushing them back to your reports. Very often, your employees are simply adjusting to their new level of responsibility, and pushing back is the best way to signal that they have your trust. As they work through the questions themselves, they’ll learn more quickly, grow faster, and ultimately, feel more empowered to make decisions.

7. Integrate delegation into your weekly routine

Maybe you know the importance of delegation, but you simply don’t have the time to do it right. The answer? Adjust your weekly routine so delegation happens regularly and naturally. For example, you might schedule one-on-ones with your reports shortly after a weekly meeting with your boss. This way, you’ll have your top priorities in mind when you chat with your team members. Or maybe you could block off one hour per week dedicated specifically to planning what you’ll delegate next. You can think about each team member’s career progression, then outline where each employee could benefit most from more responsibility.

8. Don’t know what to delegate? Try a daily time diary

Perhaps you’d love to delegate to your team, but you don’t know where to start. Each project seems just as important as the last, and you can’t decide which to hand over and which to do yourself. To figure out where to start, track your work in a daily time log. What takes up most of your time? Is anything taking up more time than you expected? Is a certain day of the week much busier than the others? Sometimes, a clear breakdown of how you spend your week can be surprising and illuminating. Ultimately, you’re looking for weekly duties that happen repeatedly and take up lots of your time. One-off tasks can be distracting, but they’re less ideal for delegation. As soon as you train another person, the task is already done. And while it’s fine to delegate quick, 10-minute jobs, handing over weekly, hour-long duties will make a much more meaningful difference in the long run.

9. After delegating, review

It’s easy to treat delegation as a “set it and forget it” activity. After all, it’s someone else’s problem now, right? In practice, checking how team delegation is going can expose problems and reveal hidden opportunities. Maybe you’ve successfully offloaded a weekly duty, but months later, your report is losing even more time than you were. Or perhaps an employee found a clever way to automate a delegated project, but no one else on the team is making use of the same technology. Finally, it’s worth asking your reports whether the projects you delegate are ultimately helping them grow. You might find one employee where the extra project still feels like a distraction, but another who couldn’t be happier about all the new responsibilities. Where you discover problems, you can always delegate again or delegate differently. Ultimately, delegation works best when you treat it as an opportunity for team growth, rather than a way to offload tasks. Understand where you need to delegate, get in the right mindset, and hand over full responsibility. Then give your employees the key info for getting started, just without the answers to every question. And when your reports start asking for more, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
A person using Dropbox productivity tools
A person using Dropbox productivity tools