James G. Patterson
The Cogent Communicator
9571 East Caldwell Drive
Tucson, Arizona 85747
520-574-9353 FAX: 520-574-0620
The Delicate Art of Delegating
James G. Patterson
The delicate art of delegating is one of the most difficult skills to learn and use. In fact, if
you're like most managers, the thought of entrusting important work to others may actually turn
Why would you be so loath to assign some of your tasks and responsibilities to others? Well,
for one thing, you probably like to view yourself as a hands-on, take-charge type. And you enjoy
the tangible reward that comes with completing a simple task. Moreover, you frequently feel it's
far easier just to do the job at hand than to explain to someone how to do it.
Sometimes you simply don't want to burden your subordinates. But when you delegate, you
aren't necessarily imposing on others. You're teaching them self-sufficiency and the skills
associated with whatever task you're giving them. By coaching them, you develop them for their
own career advancement. And you also develop your own ability to create strong
But there's likely to be another, perhaps more important, reason for your resistance to
delegating: You don't always trust your subordinates as much as you probably should.
First, you don't trust them to do a good job. "When you delegate, you feel that things are
out of control. You worry that 'other people are going to be making the sales calls. Are they
going to be doing it right?'" says Stephen Strasser, Ph.D., associate professor of hospital and
health services administration at Ohio State University and author of Working it Out: Sanity and
Success in the Workplace. But he explains that while you may feel as if you're losing control, the
opposite is really true. "When you delegate, you actually are more in control because you have a
greater effect on the outcome," he says.
Another crisis of trust: You don't trust your employees to remain satisfied with their own
level of advancement. In your paranoia, you figure that once they get a taste of those delegated
tasks, they'll start assuming all your responsibilities, be better at the work than you are, and wind
up taking over your job.
Actually, turning over your job is something to aspire to, something for which you should
plan. As you delegate your tasks to others, and as the added responsibilities and powers bolster
their skills and confidence, you are ultimately grooming possible successors. Many
organizations, in fact, won't promote managers unless they've developed qualified people to fill
their place, according to Charles D. Pringle, Ph.D., head of the management department at James
Madison University's College of Business in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
By building a team of competent subordinates via delegation, you hone your own
management prowess. "The real measuring stick of a manager is how well people below him or
her do their work," says assistant professor of management Philip DuBose; Ph.D., also of James
Madison University. When you delegate you free yourself to take over new assignments from
your boss. Delegating is how you save your company money (a subordinate’s time is less costly
than yours). It’s how you advance up the organizational ladder. (The option to delegating?
Staying stuck where you are.) So you’re doing what’s most important for yourself, your
employees, and your organization. If delegation is handled properly, you can’t lose
the brand-new manager, all this may be easier said than done. As Dr. Strasser explains, the newly
promoted supervisor often has to unlearn the very behaviors and attitudes that proved to be so
helpful when he was a subordinate. "When you're a subordinate, especially in American
business, you're expected to be a doer. But as a manager, you can't do everybody's work. You've
got to stop seeing yourself as a doer and start seeing yourself as a delegator."
PICKING THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE RIGHT JOB
Make a list. When Minneapolis-based organizational psychologist and consultant Nicki
Davidson, Ph.D., runs up against managers who are “underdelegators," she instructs them to
draw up a series of lists. First she has them indicate the individual strengths and developmental
needs for each of their subordinates. "It forces them to see where the talents lie," she explains.
Then she has the manager list each task that can be delegated. (Some, like performance reviews,
simply cannot.) Next she directs the process of matching the task with the appropriate
This method may sound so elementary that it hardly requires drawing up a formal list. But
the process of writing is a tangible step in the right direction for almost anyone beset by a
problem. In this case it gets the underdelegating manager to see the positive possibilities in
delegating, and it gets him started.
Imagine a particular assignment that requires a person who can interface well with other
departments. The manager looks down his list for someone with interpersonal skills who may
need more organizational exposure. Or there's a task that requires careful attention to detail and
the ability to plan. For that, he finds someone who's a good administrator but who may not have
done much formal planning-someone who will benefit from the experience. The point is,
whenever possible, not only to match task needs to talents but also to concentrate on delegating
to people who need to learn new skills.
Look for comp1ementary skills. In some cases, primarily when you are trying to round
out a person's base of experience for her own career growth, you should be looking for projects
that teach complementary skills. For example, when your detail person has perfected the art of
planning, you'll want to delegate an assignment that requires her to work with people.
Be prepared to supervise. Think about how closely you're going to have to keep tabs on
the project and on the person. All projects require regular monitoring-especially in the beginning
stages. So do all employees. But some projects require more scrutiny than others do and some
employees demand more direction. Here, too, it's a matter of matching the task with the person.
"You don't want to give a person who needs a lot of direction a task that really shouldn't require
it," says Dr. Davidson.
Test the waters. If you're not sure whether a person is ready to take on the assignment you
need to delegate, have a discussion with her in which you ask how she would solve a theoretical
problem related to the task. ("Let's say we had to reevaluate our need to retain so many lawyers.
How would you start the process?") Use her response as a basis for deciding whether or not to
give her the project.
Plan ahead. Keep a tally of which upcoming projects you'll have to assign and who will be
available to complete them. Likewise, keep track of who will be advancing to the point where
they will be able to take on new work.
Consider how much the person can handle. One reason managers fear to delegate is
the nagging suspicion that the subordinate will fail. And given the fact that so few organizations
allow much room for failure, y'z~ ~ likely to suffer the consequences if your subordinate botches
something you delegate. So when you select a person for a task, make sure he can do it-or that
it's something he can botch up without detonating the entire organization.
What if an employee has an idea of how to tackle something that may or may not prove
successful? "You've got to know the risks," savs Dr. Strasser. "If he does it his way and it blows
up in his face, it's a damn good lesson that he'll remember. But you've got to know how much
failure the department can handle." Suggests Dr. DuBose, "Start with the small things at first,
things that won't turn workers off but will give them the chance to prove themselves."
Know who's doing what. Keep track in writing of who is doing what so you neither
overassign nor underassign. And don't fall into the trap of becoming too dependent on a few
superior performers. Delegation at its best is getting those superstars to train inferior performers.
In the case of a particularly odious assignment, find someone who might actually
like that particular style of busywork. What if it's something so routine and basic it's not likely
to develop any new skills for anybody (except perhaps the ability to keep awake amid drudgery)?
Ask yourself, If I'm the kind of person who hates this, who in my organization likes it? Or
identify the person who despises it the least.
Note: The process also works another way. Your boss is likely to have routine tasks that he
hates doing, tasks that he may not be delegating. Why not volunteer to relieve him of something
he despises if it's something you don't mind doing?
WHEN TO DELEGATE AND WHEN TO DO IT YOURSELF
Many routine tasks should always be delegated-even if you could do them more quickly
yourself. The point is to create time for you to do more important things. So when you're faced
with writing up that meeting report, or some other time-consuming and uninspiring task, ask
yourself, Is this a valuable use of my time? Is there someone else who could be doing this?
A rule of thumb, says career management consultant Diane Blumenson, is that you should
delegate tasks you are less motivated to perform yourself, since those will be the ones that are
not likely to draw Out your best efforts.
"If you delegate those jobs you are less motivated to perform yourself, you'll wind up being
a high achiever," she says. Here's an example of what she means. Let's say you're a creative type
who likes to invent things (a new system for marketing your company's product, a new method
of getting publicity for your organization). You're inspired by the creative process and don't like
to give it up. But you hate the maintenance phase-the process of monitoring whatever you create.
So you could develop a procedure for monitoring the progress of your new systems and then
delegate that maintenance function to someone else.
Whatever tasks you ultimately decide to delegate, just be sure that you really are delegating.
In an article entitled "Seven Reasons Why Managers Don't Delegate," Dr. Pringle wrote of a
purchasing manager who delegated to his assistant the task of purchasing a certain line of items.
But the manager vetoed each purchase plan made by the assistant until the purchase plans
conformed to the way the manager would have done it in the first place.
Even though the manager was genuinely convinced that he was delegating, he was not,
according to Dr. Pringle, who encourages supervisors to distinguish between real and "nominal"
delegation. "Under nominal delegation, the manager ensures that the employee makes the
decision precisely as the manager would. The manager’s behavior signals to the subordinate that
the decision is actually too important to delegate," writes Dr. Pringle. Don't fall into that trap.
Subordinates have to learn how to make decisions. So train them. Step back, and let them
stretch their skills.
SETTING DEADLINES YOUR EMPLOYEES WILL MEET
The process of setting realistic deadlines for delegated. Assignments is essentially a forrn
of negotiation. Each party has to walk away feeling it’s made a personal gain.
It makes sense that an employee be given some input into a project's timetable If he sets the
deadline, the responsibility is up to him to complete the assignment in the time he felt it required.
So Dr. Davidson, who works with the firm of Martin McAllister Consulting Psychologists,
suggests you sit down and ask the employee how long it will take. But before you do, you should
have it in your mind how long you want it to take," she explains.
If your employee estimates that the project will take longer than you think it should, you can
break down the assignment into its various stages and assign interim deadlines for each.
Alternately, you could set up checkpoints, saying, "Let's see how far you get by this time."
In the event that your subordinate feels he can finish the task in much less time than you
believe it will take, express cautious optimism-but still set up a timetable of agreed-upon
checkpoints so you can monitor the progress.
If it's the first time a subordinate will be tackling a particular assignment, or if you have your
doubts about the employee's abilities, give the person an opportunity to explain how he would go
about doing the work. It could help head off unpleasant surprises, such as missed deadlines.
Make sure he completely understands what is expected of him and that you understand what he
will be doing. "For some subordinates, you can just say 'do it' and all will be fine. But for most
subordinates, it's a dangerous statement," says Dr. Strasser. "You must be clear about what is
expected, without sounding like Attila the Hun."
OVERDELEGATION-ARE YOU LOSING CONTROL OF YOUR
Just as your boss will see the effects of your underdelegation (you'll be needlessly
overloaded and behind schedule), she can tell if you overdelegate. She'll inquire about various
projects, and you won't know their status. And when your subordinates report the results of their
work, you'll wind up being more surprised than pleased. ("What? You drew up a schedule for
coordinating regional data and we won't get to break out our national figures for three fiscal
quarters?") Either they'll do the unexpected or they'll do the unacceptable. In the first case,
you've lost control of the monitoring process. In the second case, you've probably given them too
much to do.
Delegate, don't abdicate. Remember, even though you are turning over various tasks to
subordinates, you aren't relinquishing your responsibility as overseer. So make it clear that while
the subordinate is to complete the assignment (or perhaps handle it on an ongoing basis-taking
charge of the ethics committee, for instance), you aren't going to be far from the scene.
Set up a system of monitoring. When you sit down with an employee and say, "From
now on, I want to make this your responsibility ...," you also should establish a reporting
structure. Explain that you'll be expecting written or verbal progress reports twice a week. After
he gets familiar with the task-and after you feel confident of his abilities-you can reduce the
frequency of the briefings to once a week or less.
How TO TURN A TASK YOU'RE TIRED OF INTO A CHALLENGE
FOR YOUR EMPLOYEES
When there's tedious but necessary work to be done, you are not beyond your bounds in
delegating such drudgery to others-as long as you're even-handed about it.
Pair grunt work with challenging work. You can assign the less inspiring task at the
same time you turn over responsibility for a more challenging assignment that will enable the
person to show his true talents. Academics call this "task variety."
Assign "plum" projects as a reward for those who succeed in unchallenging ones.
And make it known among your entire staff that there is a link between the two.
Set limits. You can set a time limit on how long you wish to have the person perform the
unexciting work. ("Look, I'd like you to take on the scheduling function for six months.") And
keep to your promise. "A known end is always helpful," says Dr. Strasser. In general, he
suggests you try to minimize the time a person has to work on a boring project.
Ask employees if they can develop a better way of doing it. Tell the person, "Look, I
know it's tedious filing these clippings, but I'm open to suggestions for a new way of ensuring
that we have a complete record of all published mentions of our company's product." The
subordinate may track down a computer data bank that will eliminate the need for all the clipping
AUTHOR'S BIOGRAPHY: James G. Patterson, "The Cogent Communicator," is a Tucson,
Arizona based business writer. He has authored three books, ISO 9000: Worldwide Quality
Standard, Benchmarking Basics (both from Crisp Publications, Menlo Park, CA), and How to
Negotiate (AMACOM Books, New York. Jim is an education specialist with the U.S. Army
and on the faculty of the University of Phoenix.