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Decide what (and when) to delegate

There are 5 questions you need to answer before deciding whether to delegate something.

7 min read




In our last post on delegation, we focused on situational leadership and how it affects the role a leader plays in transferring work and responsibility to others. In this post, the focus will shift to when one should delegate and when one shouldn’t.

Choosing tasks to delegate can be trickier than it seems. There are some tasks, such as high-risk or crisis-related activities, that leaders should never delegate. Other responsibilities, including those that will be performed once or rarely and require much guidance and direction, should also not be included.

To determine when delegation is most appropriate, consider these key questions:

  1. Is this a task that someone else can do, or is it critical that you do it yourself?
  2. Is there someone else who has (or can be given) the necessary information or expertise to complete the task?
  3. Does the task provide an opportunity to grow and develop another person’s skills?
  4. Is this a task that will recur with some frequency, in a similar form, in the future?
  5. Do you have enough time to delegate the job effectively and stay on top of things? Time must be available for adequate training, for questions and answers, to check in on progress, and to reimagine/rework when necessary.

Let’s look at an example.

John, the CEO, has become bogged down recently by vendor negotiations. When the company was in its infancy, this was something that he often did because he was good at it and every dollar mattered. As the business has grown, John needs to become more focused on strategy and scaling.

Mary, a relatively new hire, has been working with John on some negotiations and has demonstrated the qualities that make him think that she’d be a good delegatee. John also wants to build Mary’s leadership capacity for future areas within the company. He recognizes that to train her will take some time up front but believes that the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term impact, so he pitches his idea to Mary.

This example answered all five questions above in a way that justified delegation:

  1. Yes, vendor negotiations is a responsibility that Mary can perform, though John will remain involved.
  2. Indeed, Mary is available to train to become more proficient at this task.
  3. Yes.
  4. This task is performed often.
  5. John committed enough time to delegate the job effectively and stay on top of things.

Here are some other related tips to consider when delegating.

  • Start with a small project, or one that doesn’t have to be completed in a specific way. Where possible, keep the stakes low. Look for small, relatively inconsequential projects that have some flexibility built into how it gets done.
  • Leave ample time for mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, especially for less-experienced colleagues. Allow added time where possible to ensure that mistakes can be identified and corrected in advance.

When not to delegate

As valuable as delegation can be, there are times where it’s simply not advisable. The following list presents when it’s better to not delegate but rather keep the project for yourself:

  1. The task has not been fully thought through. If you aren’t able to explain the task and its goals in concrete terms, then you have more work to do before handing it off to someone else to accomplish.
  2. The project must be done in a specific way. In some situations, such as an intricate project that you developed and possess intimate knowledge of, delegation may create more problems than benefits.
  3. It takes more time for explain what to do than to just do it yourself. This assumes that this is a one-off project that just needs to be done and taken off the list. A recurring project or one that will provide opportunity for meaningful subordinate development should not be included in this list.
  4. When you really enjoy doing it. There’s nothing wrong with doing some things that can be taken over by others but still provide you with a positive burst of motivation or excitement, such as greeting students and parents in carpool. But learn to limit these so that you can ensure that you’re still doing the work that you really need to be doing.
  5. You are the best person for the job. If it’s something you know well and can add real value to, do it yourself.
  6. You could learn from making the decision yourself. This one is tricky. On the one hand, the best learning comes from doing, so we shouldn’t shortchange our own development by letting others take our place. Of course, this could be true for most anything. Wise leaders learn to determine the true value-add of new learning and weigh it again other considerations. 

But while leaders may choose to not delegate certain things, there are other items that they can never delegate even if they wanted to:

  1. Ultimate responsibility. The boss should retain final say on important matters that affect company function and direction. At the end of the day, the buck must stop with the leader.
  2. Visionthe essence of leadership. Delegating their vision for workplace performance or culture is tantamount to delegating away their leadership.
  3. Leading transformational change. Any large-scale, transformational changes need to have the leader at the helm.
  4. Hiring decisions. Hiring talent is one of the most important things a leaders can do to be successful. S/he may not do the entire process themselves but should at the least join in on interviews and related tasks, as well as making the final decision of whether to hire.
  5. The onboarding and training process. Clear your schedule as much as possible in order to make time for new employees. This will build capacity and efficacy while boosting engagement and morale.
  6. Praise and recognition. Leaders need to find ways to personally acknowledge the good work that their people do.
  7. Discipline and dismissal. When things aren’t working, it’s the leader that needs to be able to say so. Anything less is completely disrespectful to the employee.
  8. High-risk activities to untested talent. Developing others is critical, but when the risk associated with a task or project is high, it is unwise and unfair to entrust it to unproven personnel.
  9. Modeling behaviors that express values and build culture. The leader needs to set the tone. Others can help, but the direction is set and then reinforced at the very top.
  10. Developing direct reports. A leader’s own reports need to be developed by the leader directly. No one else can be tasked to that responsibility, as they ultimately have to answer to the boss.
  11. Crisis management. As noted above, crisis situations demand leaders’ full attention and focus. They can get help, but responsibility lies entirely with the leader.
  12. Public relations. When it comes to public relations duties, it is advisable to not delegate at least the external components.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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