7 Ways to be a better delegator

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We all know that we need to be good at delegating in order to have any traction in our careers. We need to be able to learn how to do something and then teach someone else how to do it, so that we can move on and learn how to do something new. This is as true for creative people as it is for management types.

Yet even though we know this, most of us have trouble actually doing it. Many people think they’re the exception to the rule — that delegating is important, but in their very unique, particular case, it’s impossible.

Newsflash: It’s never impossible to delegate — it’s all in the mind of the delegator. Here are seven ways to get started on the road to all-star delegation:

1. Get over your perfectionist streak.
The key to delegating is recognizing that your ability to do things perfectly isn’t as highly valued as you think it is. In fact, perfectionism isn’t valuable in 80 percent of the work we do.

If you think you’re the exception to this rule — which all perfectionists do — consider that perfectionism is so unhealthy that it’s a risk factor for depression. This should make delegating come easier.

2. Decide what’s most important.
In order to figure out what to delegate, you need to figure out what’s most important to your career. This means you need to know what your specialty is, what you’re known for in the office, and what your unique value is to the company. Anything that falls outside this isn’t that important to you.

Once you understand this, delegating most things will be easier. They’re nonessential to your career, so it’s OK if you don’t leave your particular mark on them.

3. Focus on helping people grow.
Your job is to help make people stars. Management is essentially an act of constant giving and constant patience. It entails giving people a little attention all the time instead of giving them lots of attention only when they mess up. In fact, if you’re managing people effectively they don’t mess up, because you play to their strengths and teach them how to move around their weaknesses.

Hands-off management isn’t respectful — it’s negligent. People want mentoring and guidance from their manager. If you give that in a way that helps them grow while also treating them with respect, they’ll love having you around. And when your direct reports love having you around, they do their best work for you out of loyalty. Even younger workers — those notorious job-hoppers — are loyal to respectful, hands-on managers.

4. Give away your most interesting work.
If you think you’re going to be able to dump your most mundane assignments onto the people who report to you, think again. After all, your job as a manager is to help people grow, so you’re not actually doing your job if you’re asking them to copy and collate all day long.

So consider keeping the grunt work for yourself sometimes. Your direct reports will appreciate it, and it’ll probably give you more empathy in general since you’ll have an idea of how soul-crushing mindless work can be.

The real upside to this, though, is that the people you delegate to stay more engaged in the work they’re doing. So if you pitch in on the small, stupid tasks, you get good results on the large, important ones.

5. Blame yourself if no one can do a task as well as you.

A lot of people don’t delegate because they’re the only person who can do a particular task. If that’s you, you’re probably deluding yourself.

First off, the task probably isn’t as difficult as you think it is; it’s just that no one would do it exactly the way you do, which is fine. But in addition to that, if no one can do the tasks you do, it’s because you’re hoarding knowledge and making things needlessly complicated.

The solution isn’t complicated, though: Share the knowledge and let someone else give the task a try. You don’t need to be the only person doing it in order to feel important.

6. Take a vacation.

If you’re really having trouble delegating, go on vacation for a couple of weeks. When you get back, find who did which parts of your job while you were gone. Then distribute those parts permanently.

If someone didn’t do a good job of it while you were away, it’s not evidence that you shouldn’t delegate. It’s evidence that you need to help the person grow into the job.

7. Practice at home.

The last time I moved, it was a big deal — I had to abandon all my stuff and was out of my mind with stress.

I’m typically good at delegating, but that time I went outside even my own comfort zone: I couldn’t deal with picking the color to paint the walls of my new house, so I told the painters to pick colors that would calm me down. They did. I wouldn’t have picked the shades of yellow they picked, but it was fine — I got used to the yellow. And if I hadn’t been able to delegate as much as I did, I would never have gotten through the move.

We can all get through the good times. The test of our skills is getting through the bad ones. So when you think about delegating, recognize that, done right, it can mean the difference between enduring the rough patches and making yourself crazy for no good reason.

34 replies
  1. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I love this article. I think all managers should read this one. Now, this article describes what happens when a manager can’t delegate. What advice would you have for managers where all they do is delegate? I have seen that end of the spectrum. They delegate all the work because it seemed as though they couldn’t do the job. Now you have underly’s doing work for their own safety which makes a bad manager look good. There has to be balance in delegation – it can be a very tricky practice.

  2. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Good article, P!

    I do think however that an example, something set at work and something other than painters selecting the wall colour in your house, would have lent more puissance to the article.

  3. Erik Sua
    Erik Sua says:

    Good article. Definitely comes into play even while I’m still in school doing group projects.

    Interesting way to think about this – delegating sounds a lot like raising a child. Interesting how managing both life and work relationships requires almost the same attitudes towards people.

  4. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    I loved it! I sent it to my boyfriend who really needs help with this.

    Do you have any tips for delegating work to people on your same level or even above?

    For example, I often find myself with a lot of work while one or two of my co-workers have nothing. Is it okay for me to give them parts of my work and bypass management?

  5. Rick
    Rick says:

    I very much like the advice in Points 3, 4 and 5, taken as a whole. If you focus on helping people grow by giving them interesting work, you also build up expertise in the organization, while building loyalty among your direct reports. If no one can perform a task as well as you can after you have established yourself as a manager and leader, then you deserve the blame. Bottom line: Learn to “let go!”

  6. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    There are some jobs that are just so terrible, so despicable, or intellectually filthy, that only the chief Person can do it. These jobs can’t be delegated.

    We had a server closet at work that every previous tenant had used as, it seems, a toilet cum dumping ground. The owner of the business just couldn’t bear to ask the staff to become dirty, and a janitorial staff could not be trusted to work around the capital equipment.

    So the owner of this 3.5m a year auction rolled up his sleeves and cleaned out the server closet.

  7. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I agree with all of this except for the idea that hands-off management is negligent. I really want my manager to give me complete ownership and responsibility for my job and then just leave me the hell alone to do it. I don’t want mentoring or guidance – just let me attend whatever training I need and sign the expense form when I bring it in. Employees who need constant attention, positive reinforcement, whatever – they just seem needy, insecure, and high-maintenance to me. I already know whether I’m doing a good job or not.

    The only thing I would ask a manager to stay involved with is, please don’t make me job-hop to keep my pay up to market. If I have to come to work dressed for an interview twice a week in order to get that promotion I really should have had a year ago, you are not doing your job. If I have to come to you with other job offers for you to boost my salary to what people in other companies are making to do the same work, you are not doing your job. Other than that, I really just want to be left alone to do my work.

  8. Seeker
    Seeker says:

    Penelope, Great Article. A lot of us feel that a job will not get done unless we do it ourselves. We need to let go of this feeling to become much more productive in the long run.
    Also like you mentioned, when we delegate, we help others grow and over time, they will be able to move to more responsible roles.


  9. Karen
    Karen says:

    Thankfully, I’m learning all of these things and am becoming more aware how important they are. **I’m a perfectionist and find it hard to delegate.** Have to disagree a bit with #4. There are parts of my job I can’t stand (mostly data entry stuff) and when I was talking to a co-worker about how badly it needed to be done and that I didn’t want to do it, she said she’d do it and that she liked doing easy work like that. What a match made in heaven, right?

    I do agree with giving up some of the more ‘creative and exciting’ projects to others so that they are not always doing the mundane jobs. It’s great to see someone in a leader role really step in and do the stuff no one wants to do.

    One last thing about #4…why not find out what people on your team like to do. It’s very possible someone likes doing what someone else hates. Teamwork…gotta love it!

  10. Elizabeth Partin
    Elizabeth Partin says:

    Good Post Penelope,

    To delegate effectively and fairly you have to know some level of detail about what you are asking someone to do so you can explain what you want in a way that makes sense to them. This means focusing on what the person you are delegating to needs to be successful.

    Delegating well is ‘Managing Like You Mean It’. If you take managing seriously, then the substantial benefits that can come from delegating like growth, learning, leveraging and building capacity will happen.

  11. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    Miss Penelope-

    good article. to be able to delegate is both important and difficult. Being a perfectionist will hold you back in so many ways. Getting over this trait will allow you to succeed. Certainly right on advice.

    You also need to have trust to be a delegater. Too many of us simply do not trust others. We have been let down by people and now think others will fail. The truth is that others are capable of great things and most will surprise us …if we give them a chance.

    Finally, by delegating to others we build relationships. Yes, relationships lead to more opportunities for us in the future, so delegating really opens up our chances for more success.

    Thanks for always having something interesting on your blog.


  12. Ernie
    Ernie says:

    I believe the reason there are so many haters (Yahoo)commenting on your opinions is that most of them still work in old style (traditional) management systems and you are projecting innovative, new wave ideas that haven’t really reached much of the corporate world. Tom Peters ran up against this wall in pursuing “Wow” and now much of what he said is “old hat”. Other than your bias against older generations, I think much of what you have to say is a prediction of how Gen X will assimilate with theose darn “Millenials”. :)

  13. Steven
    Steven says:

    I’m not a manager but managed and I can say this: Once you, as a manger, get over the control issue and start assigning tasks to employees – ALWAYS follow up with the employees. Assign a project and actually care about its completion.

    I’ve been assigned really great projects, completed them happily, and never been asked about them later. I’m serious… I’ll blow tens of outside work hours and nuthin.

    This includes building a WIKI, building a new employee training plan, and things like that. We’re not talking just changing the color of the company logo.

  14. Jim C
    Jim C says:

    Excellent article. This is pretty much what they teach in management training, but this is a good place for people who haven’t had the training to read it.

  15. Dale
    Dale says:

    Oh how I wish it were as simple as this post makes it seem. But this advice often involves going against one’s nature.
    I guess, I need to learn HOW not to be so O.C. that I am able to delegate effectively. This may not be a problem for some or even most, but it is my problem so others may well suffer from it.


  16. Andreas Forslund
    Andreas Forslund says:

    Thanks for a great article. I specially did like the thoughts of “Give away your most interesting work”. I think it’s a good way of a manager behavior.

    The bit about “Get over your perfectionist streak” is nothing for me, I feel lazy then! ;) People should take time to be perfectionist instead of doing allot of bad work (80 % value crap). Don’t be lazy and categorize yourself to the lazy people group, you are better then that! :P

  17. Bob Mould
    Bob Mould says:

    ‘Getting over the perfectionist streak’ I believe is the best advice for people to be a better delegator. Most of us assume that, others may not do the task as perfectly as we do. But the truth is, when we delegate we will come to know how to do the same task in a different and better way.

  18. Scott Messinger
    Scott Messinger says:

    I agree with the point about hands-off management. The point of a manager is to tell his people what to do! Of course I don’t want a manager to be looking over my shoulder every second. But if he’s going to hand me a vague goal and walk away for weeks, then how the heck am I gonna know if I’m doing it right?

  19. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    You know, I consider myself a good delegator, and the result is that I am able to accomplish a lot of work in less time.

    Old school managers are really impressed if you put in a lot of time toiling away at who knows what. I’ve always been confused when it’s considered a good thing to put in a lot of extra hours (how come these people are not questioned as to why it’s taking them so long to get the job done?). Therefore, when someone is judged on their outcomes, delegating makes total sense because you can do a better job quicker. However, it’s easy to see why people don’t delegate if what their job performance is based on is how fast they (as the proverbial hampsters) can run in their wheel.

  20. JIngles the Clown
    JIngles the Clown says:

    Hi, I agree with much of this, though took exception at the closing of #3, “And when your direct reports love having you around, they do their best work for you out of loyalty. Even younger workers – those notorious job-hoppers – are loyal to respectful, hands-on managers.”

    What I’ve found is that you could be the most amazing boss in the world and younger workers will still job hop because 1). they don’t appreciate yet that the manager-managee relationship is inherently unequal and what while you can do the best you can to ameloriate the power imbalance, it’s always there . You know it, they know it, and they sometimes grow to resent it — esp. the star players. 2). Many of them don’t have sufficient experience to know good management when they see it. They’ll kick themselves in retrospect for leaving that kind boss and that respectful environment for what they thought would be greener pastures. 3). Younger workers — in fact, most workers — are loyal only to themselves, and I can’t say that I blame them, seeing as how most corporations treat non-executive workers as dispensable and unimportant.

    In my first job out of college, I was given so much latitude it wasn’t even funny. Of course I left for more money, like an idiot. I’m now a manager and fully expect that my stars will need to move on sooner than I’d like. That’s the way it works.

  21. GreatManagement
    GreatManagement says:

    Great article, Penelope.

    One thing I’d like to add:

    When you do delegate, ensure you allocate time and be supportive.
    You may want to agree a schedule and arrange to meet up and compare notes. After a few weeks, check how the activity is going. Remember you are not simply just dumping work on them, you are actually working with them to make sure they can carry out the work you want. You should make sure you are available to them, so that they can come and talk to you if they have a problem or need advice.


  22. just me
    just me says:

    I’ve been flipping through your blog in bits and pieces. I’m not really much of one to read other people’s ramblings… but to be honest, the last three articles really made sense. So I’m adding your feed to my rss reader. And lucky you! You get to sit between Fark.com and 8-bit theater.

  23. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The only disappointment I had with this post is that I had to click to Yahoo Finance to read all 7 ways. Definitely their loss. I thought #3 (Focus on helping people grow)was really good – especially “It entails giving people a little attention all the time instead of giving them lots of attention only when they mess up.” I believe it falls under the concept of nuturing. Delegating doesn’t come ‘naturally’ to me and I have to work at it. I find it’s also a function of my relationship with the person to whom I’m delegating. I delegated today (not work) and while at first I was skeptical and reluctant, things turned out much better than expected. I guess I’ll just have to get over my fear of delegating!

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