At a certain point, every leader comes to the realization that they can’t do everything themselves. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day!
But it’s also worth mentioning that no leader should be doing everything themselves. Why? Because a thriving team is much more valuable (and efficient) than any single person will ever be.
Teamwork makes the dream work, as they say. And teamwork can only work when every team member understands the scope of their responsibilities. That’s where delegation comes in.
But delegating well is one of those teamwork challenges that leaders sometimes struggle with. It’s harder than we think.
For many leaders, especially managers, a large part of their job relies on delegating effectively—and that means assigning work more thoughtfully. What does that look like in the workplace? Let’s find out!
How to delegate more effectively
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to complicate the definition of delegation a little bit. (Bear with me, folks.) First and foremost, delegation isn’t simply about doling out tasks to subordinates to increase productivity. At least not entirely.
Delegation effectively is also about providing greater awareness and a set of skills and tools for your team so that you ideally don’t have to dole out tasks any longer. Delegating is really about empowering your people.
An effective leader will be able to make delegation seem second-nature by sharing their thought process with their team, by explaining the context of each project that needs to be completed and each goal that needs to be achieved. They need to make their vision transparent.
When that happens, people begin to understand intuitively what they need to work on next and their work process consequently becomes more autonomous. When you’re able to inspire this type of commitment in your people, it allows you to switch focus to the bigger picture.
1) Broaden awareness
To succeed at delegating, the first thing you’ll need to do is broaden your awareness. You need to simultaneously be aware of your people’s workload; their skill sets, strengths, and weaknesses; and the priority-level of every task they’re working on. You need to know what can be sacrificed or abandoned if priorities shift and something more urgent comes up.
But it’s not just about your awareness. You have to bring your team up to speed, too.
Jesse Sostrin, writing in HBR, explains: “People get excited about what’s possible, but they commit only when they understand their role in making it happen. Once you’ve defined the work, clarified the scope of their contribution, and ensured that it aligns with their capacity, carefully communicate any and all additional expectations for complete understanding.”
This also means explaining why those tasks matter (if that’s not immediately clear) and clearly defining goals within that context. Remember: you want your team members to buy in to the why of their work, too. If you’re able to show them how a particular project could impact the team, organization, or business, then you’re delegating effectively.
2) Delegate with your people
If you’ve ever delegated work to your team, you know that there’s a back and forth that needs to happen, a weighing of what is and isn’t possible within a given timeframe. This often takes the form of a quick discussion to clarify a deadline or define a project’s scope. But what might be missing from the conversation is consideration of team members’ strengths and preferences.
Say for instance that you work for a company that makes doodads (again, please bear with me). The fact of the matter is, you’re really good at churning out doodads. You’re so good, in fact, that you’ve earned a bit of a reputation as the doodad master, even though it’s not technically in your job description. (Your passion is actually making Thingamajigs.)
One day your leader comes up to you and says “Hey, we need more doodads and you’re kind of the master around here when it comes to doodads, so can you help us out?”
In this case, the manager chose you because of your strength and skill set. They sought you out for the job, which is undoubtedly satisfying, not to mention smart on their part. But what if you’re burnt out on churning out doodads? What if the thought of churning out another doodad makes you ill?
The point is this: preference matters. And people prefer to work on projects that they find interesting, challenging, or exciting (if they have a choice in the matter). Delegating effectively means recognizing how preference factors in and communicating with team members to find the best person suited for a particular job.
Often the best person for the job isn’t the fastest or most skilled, but rather the person who sees the job as an opportunity to learn and grow.
3) Delegate to grow your team’s capacity
Which brings me to my next point: delegation as a growth opportunity. Kevin Kruse says that “delegation is perhaps more important as a tool to develop your team members and to increase the overall capacity of your team” than it is to increase productivity. And he’s right.
It might be weird to think of delegating as a learning and development opportunity for someone, but for the right person, that’s exactly what it is. OK, I admit that not all tasks you assign to team members are going to fast-track their careers or fine-tune their expertise. But short-term growth here and there is something a lot of people crave in their work—and if it improves the strength of your whole team, why not provide it?
Another aspect to this type of delegation is something I alluded to earlier. That is, the idea that you can train your people out of needing delegation in the first place. By advancing their understanding of short- and long-term goals, and the impact their role has on the organization, you’re providing insight into how they can best use their skills.
Or, in other words, you’re arming them with the awareness necessary to find the next project to work on themselves. This is ideal because it expands their (and your) capacity immensely.
More than anything, delegating effectively requires thoughtfulness. It means putting yourself in your team members’ shoes and finding a happy balance between accountability, engagement, and support. Because when you’re able to hit that sweet spot, teams can become truly powerful.
Delegating effectively is one way to improve teamwork. Here's a dozen more.