Delegation is one of the most important skills for a business owner to master. Done well, delegation will help get you out of the day-to-day minutia and allow you to focus your attention on broader company issues. In addition, good delegation can increase the morale, confidence, and productivity of your team.
Many people misunderstand delegation, and simply think of it as “telling someone to do something.” In this column, I’m going to review 9 steps for effectively delegating a task. To begin, I’m going to explain what delegation is, and is not.
Delegation, not Abdication
Abdication is the evil twin of delegation. When you abdicate a task you relinquish all responsibility. In essence, you retire from the task. In contrast, when something is delegated, the delegator’s work isn’t finished. One who delegates remains responsible for the ultimate outcome, as well as the performance of the person to whom the task was delegated.
Managers are sometimes surprised when I explain this. One might ask, “So when I delegate a task the responsibility is still on my plate?” The answer, “Absolutely.” Delegation reduces, but does not eliminate, your workload. That’s why, even if you were to delegate every task that came your way, at some point you would still need other managers to help you manage all the tasks being delegated.
With that understanding, here are 9 steps for good delegation (not abdication):
1. Find the Right Person
It’s not unusual for the owner of a counseling practice to be the best therapist, receptionist, and janitor at his or her company. If you’ve been doing a task for a long time, you might be the best person in your company at performing that task. That said, you can’t do everything and still steer the ship.
When considering to whom to delegate a task, a rule of thumb is to choose someone who can get it done about 85% as good as you could. With practice, that person may soon eclipse you as the best “X” at your company!
2. Ask the Person
If you’re a small practice, everyone on your team is likely already ‘wearing multiple hats’. Be careful not to add so much to an employee’s plate that he/she can’t succeed. In fact, before you delegate a task, ask the person if he/she is willing—and has the capacity—to take on the task. If the employee says he/she can’t handle the task, don’t delegate to him/her.
For example, “Jim, I need someone to call every client on the schedule and tell them that, due to construction, parking this week is going to be nonexistent. They’ll need to park across the street, and should give themselves about 10 extra minutes to get to their sessions. Do you have the bandwidth to get this done today?” If Jim says, “I’d like to but I’m not 100% sure I can get to it today,” then go delegate it to someone else.
3. Train and Equip the Person
Delegation often involves training. It can feel like taking one step back to take 2 steps forward. Using the example above, a manager might need to show Jim (1) How to locate clients in the calendar, (2) Where to reference their phone numbers, and (3) Etiquette for speaking with clients or leaving voicemails. In addition, the manager may need to equip Jim with necessary permissions to access the client information.
4. Make the Task Specific and Achievable
Delegated tasks should be both specific and achievable. For example, never delegate the task; “Get me a meeting with Dr. Joan for later today.” This task is neither specific nor necessarily achievable! Instead, delegate; “Will you call Dr. Joan before noon to see if she’s able to meet with me anytime between 1-5 p.m. today? If she doesn’t answer her cell, leave a voicemail and also send her an email. If you email her, blind copy me. If you get her on the phone, let me know immediately after the call if she can meet.” This task is both specific and achievable.
Don’t be shy! Out of fear of being considered a “task master” or a “micromanager” some delegators aren’t specific enough about what they want. Don’t believe the hype! It’s good to be specific about how you want things done.
5. Set Deadlines
At my company, every manager knows the rule “If there’s no deadline given, the task is not successfully delegated.” It’s crucial that every delegated task has a deadline (and larger projects should have several ‘milestone’ deadlines). Without a specified deadline, too much is left to chance. For example, a manager asks a web developer to fix a broken link. The developer agrees but later thinks to herself, “Does he want me to drop everything and do it now? Sometime this week? Or put it at the bottom of my mile-long list of other website updates?”
6. Track Progress
Each time you delegate a task, set a calendar reminder for the deadline of that task. If you don’t hear from the worker/employee on or before the deadline, reach out to that person.
Second, make it company policy that employees are required to report back to their managers on, or before, the agreed upon deadline.
Third, make it a policy that if an employee believes he/she might miss a deadline, he/she should report this information ASAP. It’s okay for a task to take longer than expected—there’s lots of acceptable reasons that deadlines get pushed back—but it’s not okay for an employee to let a deadline pass without reporting to their manager. Moreover, if a worker is reporting difficulties meeting a deadline, the delegator should fully investigate the situation to see what can be done to improve worker performance and/or task progress.
7. Review Work
It’s crucial to review completed work to make sure it’s done to your company’s high quality standards (there’s a wise saying that people do what you “inspect” not what you “expect”). This step is sometimes skipped when delegators feel that reviewing completed work conveys a lack of trust in their team members. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Good employees appreciate having someone review their work. They want to do a good job, and having a fresh set of eyes check their efforts assures them that they’ve produced quality work. It’s not demoralizing to have your work checked. It’s demoralizing to not have anyone care enough about your work to take the time to review it!
8. Beware of Upward Delegating
At times, workers may try and delegate parts of a project back to you. This might mean that they need more training, that the project isn’t achievable, that they’re overloaded, or they they’re worried about making a mistake. Upward delegation usually sounds like “I couldn’t figure out that form, can you look?” or “I couldn’t get that thing to go through, can you try?”
For a caring leader, it’s tempting to put the task back on your plate; but resist the impulse to accept upward delegation. Instead, talk to the worker to determine the best course of action. A supportive response like “I trust you. I believe you’re capable of figuring this out. Are you willing to try again?” might be all that’s needed to counter upward delegation.
9. Give Feedback and Thanks
Finally, provide clear and timely feedback on work completed, and offer employees praise and thanks for a job well done!