All Articles Leadership Management How circumstances affect delegation

How circumstances affect delegation

Delegation is not a one-size-fits-all term.

4 min read




In an earlier post, I shared some reasons that so many leaders do not delegate more often and presented arguments why they should. I also spelled out seven steps to more effective delegation. In this article, I will delve into who to consider when seeking to delegate tasks and projects.

“The way you delegate is that first you have to hire people that you really have confidence in. You won’t truly let those people feel a sense of autonomy if you don’t have confidence in them,” Robert Pozen said.

Though the term delegation may be defined consistently as the shifting of responsibility for a task or project from one person (usually a leader or manager) to another, the situations in which it is applied can vary greatly. And in many cases, the leader is doing something very different than delegating.

Here are two factors that can greatly impact the nature of what is being delegated.

  1. Experience and expertise: What degrees of experience and expertise do the subordinate bring to the project?
  2. Environment: How stable is the environment in which this task is occurring?

Let’s take a closer look at each.

The term “Situational Leadership” was coined by leadership experts Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey to describe how different situations demand different types of engagement between leaders and their people. In essence, 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 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 is appropriate for subordinates that are a bit more advanced but still need a lot of direction. Through coaching, a leader can bring him/her more into the conversation about 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 is to continue to support the subordinate through conversation but allows the subordinate increased decision-making authority.
  4. Delegating. In this final stage, the subordinate “owns” the project and is largely left alone to achieve the necessary outcome.

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

(Note: The Situational Leadership Model does not require the process detailed above be repeated in the exact same way when new, similar projects are introduced. As subordinates build capacity and efficacy, they can be delegated to more directly earlier on.)

Environment also plays a critical role in determining whether one should direct, collaborate with or delegate to a subordinate. Let’s analyze these along the continuum of crisis to stable environments.

  • Crisis. Leaders who are dealing with crises have neither the time not the bandwidth to work with 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.
  • 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.
  • Stable. This is the kind of environment in which the Situational Leadership model is most effective.

As I noted in my earlier post, there are many strong reasons to delegate, and it’s important to not be short-sighted in this area. Leaders who understand what delegation is, what it isn’t and which approaches to use in each situation will be better served to advance projects, build capacity and dramatically increase productivity and workplace engagement.


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.”

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.