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Talent Development Leader

4 Delegation Mistakes to Avoid

Properly shift tasks to others to allow you time to focus on higher-level work.

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Mon Jun 12 2023

4 Delegation Mistakes to Avoid
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If one of your top priorities as a leader is maximizing your team’s performance, then you could argue that effective delegation is one of the most important leadership skills in achieving that goal. I’ve been working with and coaching new leaders for nearly 20 years, and the biggest challenge for a new leader has consistently been shifting focus from their own work to ensuring they leverage the skills and knowledge of their team members.

What stops leaders from delegating work?

Many first-time leaders don’t have clear expectations about what work they should be doing and may be unclear about the new work they are supposed to take on. Without clear expectations, any high performer will do what they think creates value: Go back to what they know will generate an immediate return on their investment of time and energy, which is doing the work themselves.

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On the other hand, while experienced leaders may better understand what’s expected of them, they may still be reluctant to delegate tasks because they enjoy doing the work and controlling the outcome. As a subject matter expert, they may not trust that their team has the skills, knowledge, or abilities to get the job done right.

Additionally, leaders who are managing a team of people who were formerly their peers may feel uncomfortable telling their friends what to do.

Although it’s less common, some leaders are afraid to delegate tasks for fear of losing their technical skills and becoming irrelevant. That concern can be a risk for individuals who miscalculate the importance of strong leadership and work in an especially technical industry.

As difficult as it may be to get right, effective delegation not only sets up your team for success but also enables you to shift your focus to more rewarding, high-value, and strategic work. However, beware of common mistakes leaders make when delegating.

Mistake #1: Micromanaging delegated tasks

Probably the most common delegation mistake leaders make is staying more involved than necessary. Great leaders strike the right balance of oversight by having a conversation to negotiate the level of support and guidance employees need.

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After assigning a delegated task, ask your team member to talk you through their next steps. Ask questions such as: How will you get started? How are you feeling about the new task? When should we meet again to follow up and share progress?

If their answers are concerning or not what you would expect, you may need to offer more oversight. If the employee seems comfortable and is taking a sound approach, then you can give them more autonomy.

Also, focus on delegating responsibility for the outcome rather than detailing the process for how someone should do the work. With that approach, you’ll get greater buy-in and empower your employees.

Mistake #2: Dumping work on another team member

Years ago, I worked with Richard, an experienced but unapproachable operations manager with a terrible habit of dumping work. His no-nonsense approach to delegation was to announce a list of tasks at the weekly team meeting and look around the room for volunteers. After individuals volunteered, Richard would say something like, “Go and speak with marketing; they’ll get you started” or “I’ll forward you the email; it’s all in there.”

What was missing from Richard’s approach? Just about all the essential elements for a successful delegation.

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Employees need more guidance. Delegated tasks require clear expectations of what success should look like, timelines to set accountability, and follow-up or coaching to ensure it goes well.

It’s also worth mentioning that a team member taking on a new responsibility or task for the first time may have some hesitancy. As such, understand and address any doubt whenever you delegate a task. You should also clearly outline what the employee must do to meet and exceed expectations.

Ensure you give team members all the context required for success. Because some of the knowledge may be new, clarify that everything makes sense to them and answer any of their questions.

Mistake #3: Delegating the wrong types of tasks

Never delegate your leadership responsibilities, which include activities such as performance reviews, disciplinary discussions, duties you are accountable for handling yourself, and assignments involving sensitive or confidential information. If you’re ever in doubt, consult with your manager when delegating strategic or high-level tasks and responsibilities.

Apart from your core leadership duties, you can delegate most of your other responsibilities. The best tasks and responsibilities to delegate are those that recur regularly. When delegating such projects, establish parameters for success up front and remove yourself from day-to-day execution.

Mistake #4: Depending excessively on superstar workers

It may be easiest to delegate tasks to a superstar employee who is highly capable and motivated. However, over time, frequent delegation to superstars can cause overload, and it fails to prepare the rest of your team for taking on new or stretch assignments. Consider leaning on your superstar when the situation is truly urgent and the consequences of failure are high.

The right person for a task may be the one who can get it done immediately. Or it could be someone whose professional development would benefit from a new experience. When dealing with a less-experienced team, set time aside to properly coach individuals and follow up regularly.

Considerations before delegating

Even the best leaders don’t necessarily have all the right answers, but they do ask the right questions. While keeping your team’s needs top of mind, try to answer these questions:

  • What’s the desired output? What will the completed task look like? How will I measure success? How will I ensure that the criteria are clear for what success looks like? How will I assess the results of the tasks I’ve delegated? What are key milestones? How will I give feedback along the way?

  • To whom should I delegate the work? Who has the skills to complete this work? Who has the motivation? Who could use this as a development opportunity? Is there anyone I haven’t considered before who may be interested in the work? What are the benefits for that person completing this delegated task?

  • What is the task’s importance? Are there specific attributes or timelines that are critical to completion?

  • Am I delegating authority appropriately? What key decisions will the employee or team need to make regarding this task? Will they have the authority to make the critical decisions this task calls for? What context do they need to make those effective decisions?

  • What’s the method of sharing the work? What is the delegation process? Will there be a meeting to generate ideas or to define the task further with the person? Have I given clear expectations?

Effective delegation sets up teams for success

The key to successful delegation is to change how you think about measuring success. You must be able to go from thinking you are judged on the quantity and quality of work you complete alone to, instead, measuring success based on the performance and growth of your whole team.

Delegation that is thoughtfully planned and supported through coaching will boost engagement, and doing so is essential to your team’s development as well as your own.

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