You feel frustrated because important projects are progressing too slowly. Your manager says you need to be more strategic but you barely have time for lunch, let alone strategy.

If this predicament sounds familiar, you may need more staff. Or your job description may be impossibly broad.

Or, though you may not like to admit it, you could be spending too much time on tasks that could be done by others.

How you can get better at delegation

Difficulty delegating is a common issue raised by managers on our leadership programmes. The good news is that you can get better at delegation.

  1. Recognise the problem

First, you need to recognise that you have a problem with delegation.  Perhaps you find that you are working late on a consistent basis, or you miss deadlines or are much busier than your direct reports.  Your colleagues may have dropped hints – you may have been told that you ‘take on a lot’, for example. 

  1. Identify what is preventing effective delegation

The next step to delegating well is understanding how your actions and feelings may be hindering effective delegation.

Protecting your reports: You shield your staff from work that is boring or repetitive and instead do it yourself. This may be because you want to be liked by your staff and are worried about how they will react to being given boring or repetitive work.

Perfectionism: You may choose not to delegate as you are convinced you will do the best job. This may well be true, but certain tasks may not be a good use of your time. Or perhaps you had a bad experience in the past so think it is safer not to engage others.

Wanting to be the expert: You may feel that your knowledge adds a lot of value to your organisation and you want to demonstrate your knowledge at every opportunity. However, this can mean you fail to engage and develop others. This can be particularly common in managers who have been promoted from positions as functional experts into roles requiring team leadership.

Anxiety: You may be hoarding tasks because you are anxious or insecure. Perhaps you are uncertain about your own priorities so you do a bit of everything in the hope that something will please your manager. Or perhaps you feel the need to justify your senior position by appearing busier than others.  

  1. Develop techniques to help you delegate

There are practical techniques to help you delegate. We dedicate a whole session to delegation on our leadership development programme for executives and focus on encouraging our participants to tailor solutions to their own strengths and weaknesses.

A good starting point is to define an effective structure for ‘delegation conversations’. Delegation conversations are the times at work when you attempt to delegate work to someone else.  I hope this structure provides you with a useful starting point:

Understand your audience – who is being assigned the task?

Consider the skills, confidence and experience of the staff member who is being given a piece of work. How much information and support will they need? Is what is being asked of them achievable?

Frame the request

Clearly express to the staff member why this piece of work is necessary and why they are being asked to do it. What is the background to the piece of work? Why is it important? How does it fit into the bigger picture? Why are they the person who is best placed to do this task?

Define success

Clearly define what outcomes you are looking for and make sure the person you are delegating to has a clear idea of practicalities like deadlines and approvals required.

Arrange follow-up

How often would you like updates on the piece of work and in what form?

This structure is simple, but it is surprising how often important issues are left unsaid or ill-defined in delegation conversations, causing frustration and inefficiency. 

Even seasoned managers can struggle to delegate effectively. Coaching can help you to improve your delegation skills and free up time to focus on the things that matter. 

Professor Nelson Phillips is Abu Dhabi Chamber Chair in Innovation and Strategy at Imperial College Business School. He is also programme co-director for Leadership in a Technology Driven World.


Learn more on this upcoming programme

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Leadership in a Technology Driven World

Imperial Leadership in a Technology Driven World Programme is a five-day immersive course that equips participants with the skills to lead their teams through the digital age.