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Delegation defined… and applied

“Delegation is the skill that makes remarkable success possible.” Dan Rockwell

6 min read




Delegation is commonly defined as the shifting of authority and responsibility for particular functions, tasks or decisions from one person (usually a leader or manager) to another. While that is probably the most common understanding of the term, there are those who define the term more narrowly.

But before we talk about what others say delegation is, let’s be clear on what it isn’t.

  • Delegation is not dumping or abdicating personal responsibility. Rather, it is about spreading it out in way that best advances the organization’s short- and/or long-term cause. “Delegating work works, provided the one delegating works too.” Robert Half
  • Delegation does not involve telling people what to do. Rather, it involves explaining the outcomes and results they are expected to achieve. They are then expected to work out the ‘how’ and the steps involved.
  • Delegation is not the distribution of tasks, as if simply passing along things from a leader’s personal to-do list (also called leadership abdication). Most delegated tasks take some time, planning and effort to complete properly.
  • Delegation does not look the same in every situation. Many factors go into determining what to delegate, when to do so, to whom and how the leader-subordinate relationship will look over the lifetime of the project.
  • Delegation is not about punting away your weaknesses. As a leader, you aren’t going to be able to do every little bit of every project, even when it speaks to your strengths and passion. Of course, there are going to be things that you don’t do as well or enjoy as much as others (just make sure that it’s not a fixed mindset speaking!) But, for the most part, delegation should be viewed as a way of building upon existing strengths and getting things done more quickly and completely.
  • Delegation does not mean you can’t do it all yourself. Instead, it means you’re a strong enough leader that you can identify projects that would be good for others on your team.

A narrower definition of delegation emerged from the work of leadership experts Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. Blanchard and Hersey coined the term “Situational Leadership” to describe how different situations demand diverse types of engagement between leaders and their people. They offer four scenarios along a continuum of employee experience and expertise.

  1. Directing. This approach is for subordinates who are least experienced in completing the desired task and may suffer from low self-confidence. Leaders in these situations need to do a lot of directing, as in overseeing projects closely and offering regular instructional guidance, to ensure that the team member is clear on what needs to happen and in what way. The leader must also help the subordinate work through any deficits in self-confidence or other barriers to success.
  2. Coaching. Coaching, which involves questioning to create awareness and personal responsibility, is appropriate for subordinates that are a bit more advanced but still need a lot of direction. Through coaching, a leader involves the subordinate more in determining how to do things and helps push things along when the subordinate’s initial enthusiasm for the project invariably starts to wane. At this stage, the leader still decides.
  3. Supporting. Over time, the subordinate becomes more comfortable and takes on added responsibility and leadership. The leader’s role in this sage is to continue to support the subordinate through conversation but allows the subordinate increased decision-making authority.
  4. Delegating. In this fourth and final stage, the subordinate “owns” the project and is largely left alone to achieve the necessary outcome, once the context of the task and goal are discussed.

Notice that in this model, delegating only occurs after the subordinate has been directed and/or supported, often deeply, for a period of time.

This model underscores a fundamental difference between assigning tasks and delegating authority. You assign a task when you say to students, “sweep the classroom floor.” You delegate authority when you say, “keep the classroom clean” and then provide the resources to get the job done. Only after someone demonstrates competence, initiative, and follow through, is it time to delegate authority.

James is a district superintendent. He recently had two key positions he needed to fill. After careful consideration of internal and external candidates, he hired one leader from within the district and one from without. The internal candidate came from a very different role in the district and required much directing. The external candidate arrived with a wealth of related experience to his new job, allowing James to delegate more freely.

Rather than approaching both leaders the same way, James understood that each leader requires something different of him. He spent much of his time supporting the internally promoted leader and with the externally recruited leader, picking his brain for insights that he did not possess. He described this process as having one hand down to support and pull a leader up, while he has one hand up to learn from the other.

Delegation at its core

Regardless of how widely or narrowly one defines the term, delegation is the leader’s decision to:

  1. Lead by providing vision and direction.
  2. Trust others and empowering them to deliver on that trust.
  3. Develop beyond a leaders’ personal capacity by tapping into others’ unique abilities and opinions.
  4. Build capacity in others through training and new experiences.
  5. Replace him/her self with others who can do the same job, freeing them to contribute elsewhere.

Delegation-friendly (and not so friendly) situations

The Situational Leadership Model factors in more than a subordinate’s experience and expertise. Environment also plays a role in determining whether a leader should direct, collaborate with or delegate to a subordinate. Let’s analyze these along the continuum of crisis to stable environments.

  1. Crisis. Leaders who are dealing with crises have neither the time not the bandwidth to work subordinates through the process detailed above. In most cases, the leader will need to assume an authoritarian or directive role in mobilizing others toward desired outcomes. When dealing with very experienced, expert subordinates, a more participative approach is recommended.
  2. Changing/High-growth. In fluid environments that are active but not crisis-ridden, leaders should seek to use a more collaborative approach so long as the subordinate possesses at least moderate levels of capacity and know-how.
  3. Stable. This is the kind of environment in which delegation is most effective.

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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