Emily Sander thought she could do it all.
When she first became a manager, she assumed leading a team meant doing more work than everyone else. She’d show people how to take on new tasks, and if the team needed a push to meet a deadline or to take on an overflow of tasks, she’d work even harder to fill those gaps. That meant 70-hour workweeks and a calendar filled with job interviews, team meetings, internal meetings and the same tasks she did as an individual contributor.
Over time, the extra work took a toll. Once a fitness and health fanatic, she stopped working out and ate whatever she could find in her fridge. Friends and coworkers would notice her red eyes and ask her how she was doing, but Sander persisted carrying the same workload. Then one day, while looking at her calendar, she realized she was triple-booked and a fourth meeting came in.
What Is Delegation?
“I just lost it, and I started crying because I was super booked during that time slot and I just couldn’t take it,” Sander said.
After speaking with a handful of colleagues and mentors, she realized that she was looking at her role all wrong. Now that she was a manager, her job wasn’t to be the team’s best performer. Her job was to make sure her team members were as successful as her. She had to let tasks go and embrace delegating.
“I remember that being the light switch,” Sander, who now works as chief of staff for car dealership website platform fusionZone Automotive, and is a certified career coach, said. “I’m going to coach them, manage them and help them be the best version that they can. If you do that, you have a team who’s performing well, and you can take this work and you don’t have to do it all.”
Her journey is common for new managers.
The concept of delegation is uncomfortable for most, and seems to go against the grain of what it takes to succeed as an individual contributor. While companies prize teamwork, the ability to take on more work and do it well is what gets rewarded. But if you want to succeed as a manager, you have to get comfortable delegating.
What Does It Mean to Delegate Work?
From the moment you step into a management role, the scope of your responsibilities expands.
In addition to overseeing your staff’s day-to-day work, you’re in charge of its overall growth and finding new ways to provide value to the company. That means you can’t be involved in every daily task anymore. You might be able to juggle responsibilities for a little while, but eventually, that road leads either to burnout or a stunted team.
Delegation is the act of redistributing a task or responsibility from yourself to another person. It can involve giving an employee authority to make a decision or assigning them a new task outside of their usual responsibilities. It’s a process that requires identifying the right people for a task, creating clear expectations and offering guidance throughout the process.
To that end, delegation is more than a nice strategy managers have at their disposal, it’s a necessary skill for success, said Shanna Hocking, a leadership coach who runs her own firm, Hocking Leadership.
Why Should You Delegate?
As a manager, you’re at the top of the funnel for special requests, new projects and urgent deadlines from other teams. Some of these will fall squarely in a team member’s duty, but others may exist outside the scope of any one person’s role.
The instinct for new leaders as they transition from doing to leading is to take on some of those tasks to save your team time — but that comes at a cost. It both limits opportunities for employees to step up and grow and prevents you from working on larger team-wide goals, Hocking said.
“Your job as a leader is not to be the best on the team. Your job is to bring out the best in your team,” Hocking said. “Just because you could do [a task] and you’re good at it, so therefore you do it, you’re actually not that great of a leader then.”
As a leader, delegation offers a number of benefits that can help you advance in your own career. For starters, it frees up more time on your calendar to think creatively about what your team needs, according to Rayne Martin, a leadership coach and founder of It’s the Impact, a consulting firm.
Managers aren’t needed to execute daily tasks, no matter how effective they may be at the job. Instead, they should be focused on what is needed to take the team to the next level, such as finding new tools to help the team, recruiting new employees or building internal relationships to advance a project.
“Your job as a leader is not to be the best on the team. Your job is to bring out the best in your team.”
Developing your delegation skill is critical to moving up the career ladder, too. As a senior leader, you don’t have the time to review every assignment you delegate before it goes live, said Ashley Deibert, chief marketing officer for Piano, a cloud-based customer behavior platform. Success requires trusting that you have the right people in the right roles to execute the work. If you aren’t able to delegate work and empower your team as a direct manager, it will only get more difficult as a leader.
“An important part of delegation is learning that it’s OK if somebody else helps you achieve your goal,” Deibert said. “You don’t have to be the one who authored everything. That’s something that … I’ve seen be the most difficult thing that [new managers] have to get comfortable with.”
But it’s not just managers who benefit from delegating. Think back to the projects and work that prepared you for your role, and it’s likely assignments that were delegated to you. When you distribute special projects or even small requests to an employee, it’s an opportunity to let them develop new skills.
When delegated work aligns with an employee’s strengths or professional development plan, it can be a valuable motivation and retention tool, Hocking said. This could mean putting a more senior employee in charge of running a meeting or assigning a detail-oriented employee the task of collecting data for a presentation.
Those projects can help an employee assume a larger role in the organization, and eventually, earn a promotion. The more responsibility your employees can take on, the more time you can spend on the bigger-picture work that leads to future promotions up the management chain.
“It’s been said that if you can’t replace yourself, you can’t move up as a leader — so this is an investment in both your team and you,” Hocking said.
Identifying Your Delegation Fears
Every manager struggles with delegation at first.
Most people step into a management role because they’re good at doing the job itself. After all, companies often reward employees who can work independently and handle more work efficiently, not because they delegate their work out to other people.
As a result, the concept of delegation can feel unnatural. It might feel like burdening your employees or an admission of incompetence on your part. Maybe you believe you can do the task better and faster than anyone else on your team or no one is equipped to handle it.
5 Common Barriers to Delegation
- Impostor syndrome
- Lack of capacity
- Involvement bias
Martin has heard managers espouse all of these concerns and more as a leadership coach for her consulting firm. Every leader has their own hang-ups that prevent them from delegating tasks, even when they objectively understand it’s a necessary part of their job.
“Ten people could struggle to delegate and each one could have an entirely different reason for why it’s a challenge for them,” Martin said. “So one of the things I like for people to understand is, ‘What is the story you’re telling yourself that’s preventing you from doing it in the first place?’”
To help managers identify their own delegation barriers, Martin walks them through a hypothetical exercise. She first tells them to imagine that they’re taking two weeks off and can’t do anything. Then she has them write down a list of all the tasks they have to get done during that time. Finally, she has them write out who they could delegate each task to.
As managers go through this hypothetical exercise, two things happen, Martin said. They either realize how many tasks they have on their plate that they could delegate or they’ll start hitting barriers. For any tasks that the manager doesn’t think they can delegate out, Martin challenges them and asks why they wouldn’t be able to redistribute it to someone else.
That’s when the delegation fears crop up. They might say they’re the only ones with the skill to complete that particular task, or that it would be faster if they just did it. Those stories often seem valid in the moment, but explored further, they often reveal deeper barriers that are preventing the task from being delegated, Martin said.
Even if you don’t go through the exercise, Martin suggests any time you find yourself doing a task rather than re-assigning it, ask yourself why. Your answer will often point to what’s holding you back from delegating.
To help with that, these are the five common barriers that hold people back from delegating and how to overcome them.
Common Barriers to Delegation and How to Overcome Them
When delegating work, you might think that no one can do the task as well as you or decide it’s not worth the trouble to assign the task since you’ll just fix it later. Since managers assume responsibility for their employee’s work, it’s only natural to want the work to be perfect. In that pursuit of perfection, however, it can be easy to convince yourself that you have to do the task if you want it done right, Martin said. But doing tasks to avoid mistakes or because you want it done your way leads to burnout and can breed distrust on your team.
The fix: The secret to overcoming this fear is to practice letting go of control on projects and embracing imperfection. Mistakes are often where the best learning and growth happens for employees. Instead of looking at them as errors to be fixed, consider them as opportunities to coach and grow your staff.
Giving employees the freedom to experiment and make mistakes is also how innovation happens. So next time you find yourself thinking no one can do the task better than you, let go of control and use it as an opportunity to teach. You may be surprised with what your employee comes up with.
Another common barrier that prevents people from delegating work is the fear that the employee will do the task better than them, or that distributing a task will reflect their inability to do the job. At the root of those fears is impostor syndrome, Sander said.
As a new manager navigating new responsibilities and leading a team for the first time, it’s understandable to feel doubt or fears of replacement. But this can lead you to doing tasks that would otherwise allow another employee to step up and shine, limiting the growth of you and your team.
The fix: Impostor syndrome is not easy to overcome, but it can help to change the narrative around what success looks like in your role. As an individual contributor, you’re only evaluated based on your own performance. But in a management role, your job is to lead the team.
It’s important to remember that when the team succeeds, you succeed, Sander said. If you offer the right support, employees will appreciate the opportunity to stretch their skills. And the more opportunities you can give your team to shine, the more success you will have as a leader.
Lack of Capacity
Sometimes managers may not see anyone on their team who’s equipped to handle a specific task. Their employees may lack experience or there may not be anyone available to take on the given task. As a result, the manager thinks, “No one is able to take on these assignments,” and takes it upon themself to fill in those gaps. But in doing so, they risk hampering the team in the long run. No one develops the skills they need to do those tasks, so the loop repeats itself.
The fix: This one comes down to training and hiring. If your team is overworked and they don’t have the capacity to handle the assignment, it may be a sign that you need to hire additional staff. If no one has the skills to do the job, then it’s important to set time aside to train them. This may mean creating a document for how to do the task or just sitting down with the employee and walking them through the project. While this requires more work upfront for you than just doing everything yourself, the investment will pay dividends in the long run.
Some managers may think it’s just faster if they do the task rather than assign it out. In a one-off scenario this might be true. It might take you 15 minutes to write a marketing copy, which is quicker than finding someone to take on the assignment, explain what to do and fit it into their workload. But over time, those small tasks can add up and cause you to overtax yourself.
The fix: Often the only reason you can do a task faster is because you’re used to doing it. Give your employees the chance to develop the skill. Setting clear expectations and establishing a standardized process can help the employee tackle the work quickly in the beginning. But over time, be sure to give them the freedom to experiment. They may just find a more efficient way of completing the same task.
For some managers, it can be difficult to let go of having control of projects. They want to oversee every step of it to make sure everything goes according to plan. This impulse is based on two biases that a team of researchers discovered in trying to understand why some managers are reluctant to delegate. These include:
- Self-enhancement bias: This involves managers subconsciously rating the work they were heavily involved in as higher quality than work they didn’t provide input in.
- Faith in supervision: This involves managers assuming the work they oversee as a higher quality than work completed without supervision.
Based on these biases, a manager might assume that their involvement is critical to a project’s success even when that isn’t true. This can lead to micromanaging, which prevents employees from fully stretching their wings.
The fix: Much like the perfectionist impulse, managers struggling with this mindset need to practice letting go of control. Be clear about what expectations you have about a project, but then let the employee take charge of it. If anything does go wrong, use those opportunities to teach and offer feedback.
Just don’t forget to celebrate the mistake, Sander said. Reinforce that their intentions were right, even if the outcome was wrong. This combination of teaching and encouragement leads to a more autonomous staff that can produce innovative work without your oversight.
How to Delegate in 6 Steps
One of the most common mistakes people make with delegation is assuming it’s just telling people what to do. A project or task comes across their desk, they assign it out to an employee and expect it to arrive fully formed on deadline.
But like an absentee traffic controller waving traffic through without a plan, this is a one way ticket for pileups, accidents and outright disaster.
When a manager doesn’t provide the proper support when distributing tasks, they can be seen as a laissez-faire leader — or a leader who shirks their duties, said Kalan Norris, a post-doctoral student in organizational psychology at University at Buffalo. In a 2021 study, Norris, along with University at Buffalo professor G. James Lemoine and University of New Orleans professor Hamed Gahremani, discovered that this lack of trust can create an environment where employees treat the delegated task as a burden and don’t try as hard on it as a result.
“Managers need to be aware that your employees may not be aware of who you are as an individual and your intentions,” Norris said. “Employees gossip … and that may negatively impact how they perceive their manager … so it’s important to communicate with your employees the purpose and outcome associated with the act you’re delegating.”
Kyla Thorpe learned this the hard way the first time she managed a team at the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research. She’d never delegated work before, so she assumed she just had to tell someone to execute a task and they’d deliver. Instead, every project that came back would be a mess.
6 Steps to Delegating Work
- Decide what tasks to delegate.
- Identify the best person for the task.
- Clearly communicate expectations.
- Provide the appropriate training.
- Establish check-ins.
- Celebrate the work and provide feedback.
During one instance, she assigned a team member the job of creating the WordPress page for the foundation’s annual fundraiser. But without the proper guidance, the employee didn’t know how to set up the website. As a result, some customers didn’t get confirmation emails and others had the wrong products attached to their orders, creating more stress for Thorpe and her employee.
As issues like this added up, it eroded her self-confidence and led to long days of doing tasks or fixing mistakes. It wasn’t until she trained with a leadership coach on how to delegate that she started to identify her mistakes.
“It was very difficult for me, and I felt like a failure a lot of the time because I didn’t understand why when I told people to do things, it didn’t turn out,” Thorpe said. “It was because I didn’t know how to delegate to them.”
Having a delegation process in place helped Thorpe, who wrote an e-book on the subject called Do It All, Without Having to Actually Doing It All!, gain more confidence in her abilities as a leader, empowered her employees and freed up time on her calendar.
From identifying tasks to delegate to communicating expectations, here’s what delegation entails.
1. Decide What Tasks to Delegate
Every task can feel important to new managers. Putting someone in charge of creating a product white paper or fixing bugs can seem counterintuitive to a manager used to doing it all themselves as an individual contributor.
Choosing the right tasks to delegate can go a long way toward empowering the team, leading to more creative solutions and a more productive staff, according to one study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
But you can’t delegate everything. If you assign work that falls under your responsibility as a manager to avoid making a decision, employees will see that as you deflecting your duty, according to Mary Steffel, a Northeastern University professor who studies when and why people delegate.
“It may be appealing to delegate a difficult decision to someone else in the organization, but you have to be careful if you translate that decision to somebody else,” Steffel said. “That person may see you as shirking your responsibilities if it was seen as something you were supposed to assume yourself.”
To figure out what can and can’t be delegated, Sander suggests reviewing the assignments on your plate. There will be some tasks, like creating a team budget or purchasing a tool, that you as a manager carry responsibility for and possess insights that other team members don’t have. Those are the ones that you need to focus on.
But others, like fixing an urgent bug, creating a white paper or writing a press release, can and should be carried out by your staff. These tasks typically fall into three buckets:
- Authority tasks: This involves giving an individual or your team the autonomy to make decisions. Don’t fall into the trap of only delegating work. Approving every decision your team makes can be just as tedious and time consuming as doing the tasks yourself. Healthy leaders empower employees to make decisions within outlined parameters.
- Daily tasks: This involves redistributing tasks and special requests that fall under an employee’s job description. Other teams will often come to you with tasks that clearly fall under one of your employee’s day-to-day responsibilities for no other reason than they didn’t know who to turn to. An example: fixing a bug on the website when you have a systems analyst to handle that. These are the easiest and most obvious tasks to delegate.
- Stretch tasks: These are special projects or requests that fall outside of an employee’s scope of responsibility, but they give them an opportunity to learn a new skill. If an employee wants to become a manager one day, it can be beneficial to give them a task that you’d normally handle to give them that experience. An example might be to put them in charge of leading a code review meeting instead of you.
Doling out assignments from all three categories can be a great way to maximize your staff’s productivity and give them opportunities to grow.
Just don’t fall into the trap of assuming that a project’s urgency means you need to be the one to take care of it. If you find yourself constantly chasing deadlines, it’s a good sign that you need to be delegating those tasks, Martin said.
To help, try sorting your tasks into an Eisenhower matrix, which splits priorities into four quadrants:
- Urgent and important
- Urgent and not important
- Not urgent and important
- Not urgent and not important
Any tasks that fall into urgent and not important are prime candidates to be delegated.
“You should always be expanding your influence and decreasing your personal execution,” Martin said.
2. Identify the Best Person for the Task
One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make when delegating work is to assign tasks to the same people every time. It can be easy to assign a special project or urgent request to the top performers and know they’ll get the job done.
But there are a couple problems baked into going to the same people every time (beyond potentially overburdening that employee). Remember, delegation is an important opportunity for employees to expand their skills and knowledge. Taking on extra tasks are also important benchmarks for promotions and new job opportunities.
If you only give assignments to the same person, you’re limiting other people’s opportunity to grow in their career, said Hocking, of consulting firm Hocking Leadership.
“Delegation should be equitable within your organization, so you’re not leaning on one person and not giving others the chance that they deserve to be at the table to have a stretch assignment,” Hocking said.
There’s also the potential for bias. The people we deem most competent tend to have the same skills and strengths as us, Hocking said. They may also look the same and come from the same background.
“If you can align someone’s skill set and strength with what they want to do and the company’s objective, that’s the golden path.”
These biases can also impact how you evaluate their work. If someone does something the same way you’d do it, you’re more likely to think it’s done better than someone who takes a different approach.
Hocking suggests creating a strengths chart for your employees to help you distribute the tasks equitably. Every employee has different things they’re good at. One might excel at detail-oriented tasks, another might enjoy problem-solving, while a third is great at building relationships. Assessments like CliftonStrengths can help you identify those strengths, but they’ll also become apparent as you evaluate your staff’s work.
Just make sure that the employee enjoys those tasks. While a client manager might be great at pacifying angry customers, they may not enjoy doing it, Martin said.
“We might think we know what someone wants to do because we have a cursory view of what we think they’re capable of, but the reality is, people come to work with all sorts of past experiences,” Martin said. “Maybe they just haven’t had the chance to highlight them or they want to grow because their own career ambition is elsewhere.”
From there, delegate work based on people’s strengths. People are more likely to feel empowered when they get assignments that play to their abilities, and it ensures the task is in good hands, Sander said.
You can also use professional development discussions to identify what skills an employee needs to develop, and delegate tasks based on that. In some cases, this can also be a great opportunity to pair a more experienced employee with a less experienced one to work with them as a mentor on the project.
“If you can align someone’s skill set and strength with what they want to do and the company’s objective, that’s the golden path,” Sander said.
3. Clearly Communicate Expectations
Once you identify the task and person who will take it on, it’s time to assign it to them.
This is one of the most important steps in the process. The way you communicate the task will go a long way toward how the employee receives it and the work they’ll do. As Thorpe learned, just telling someone what to do without a plan can lead to all manners of miscommunication and errors.
To properly delegate a task, you need to explain what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and why the project is important.
How much time you need to spend on this will vary based on the complexity of the task and the experience of the individual. If the person is new or the project is complex, you’ll want to set up a one-on-one meeting to discuss the project.
From the onset, you should have a clear outline of exactly what you want to see from the project. If an employee is planning an event for example, you can’t just say “I need an event at this location, with this agenda,” Martin said. This leaves too much room for misinterpretation.
For example, the employee might plan it outdoors when it needs to be indoor or prepare for hundreds of guests when it should be a small meeting.
Instead, you need to be specific about what the event looks like and needs to accomplish, Martin said.
“It’s: ‘I need an event of 50 people, and they need to leave the meeting feeling more educated and inspired about our product,’” Martin said.
You also need to communicate any additional expectations you have for the project. If it’s important to the success of the event that attendees wear purple, for example, then you need to express that. Don’t make the employee guess what’s necessary and what isn’t, Martin said.
“Don’t just let them say they got it because you may have been a bad communicator or maybe they didn’t understand it all the way.”
Once you’ve articulated the project, make sure the employee repeats the assignment back to you and you follow up with an email summary, said Dean Guida, founder of Infragistics, a UI toolkit company. Everyone interprets information differently. What you thought was clear, may not have been to the employee so reinforcing important information is critical.
“Don’t just let them say they got it because you may have been a bad communicator or maybe they didn’t understand it all the way,” Guida said. “Make them repeat back what, why and what the outcome looks like and you’ll discover any miscommunication early on.”
From there, you need to establish a realistic deadline. Make sure to ask the employee what else they’re working on and help them prioritize their schedule accordingly. Competing priorities can grind projects to a halt. The person will either stretch themselves too thin or miss deadlines as they juggle priorities, Guida said.
If it’s a smaller task, don’t minimize the time it’ll take to complete it. Just because it takes you 15 minutes to write a marketing copy, it doesn’t mean that person can do it in the same amount of time, said Deibert, CMO at Piano. If it takes them longer, they’ll either be resentful of the task or feel ashamed that they couldn’t do it faster.
Finally, make sure you take the time to describe why this project is important and why you want them to take it on. People want to do work that’s important and to feel valued for their abilities. Explaining how the project fits into the team or company’s larger goal and why you assigned it to them will go a long way toward creating momentum to complete the project.
Ultimately, everyone wants to do a good job, Guida said. If something goes wrong in a task you delegated, you can often trace the error back to the way you communicated it.
4. Provide the Appropriate Training
Once you delegate a task, it’s important to meet the employee where they’re at in terms of their preferences, skills and experience.
How much direction you have to give one employee to do a task will be different than how much you give another. If an employee is new or hasn’t done a task before, it’s important to create specific documentation about how to complete it.
Break everything down step by step and walk them through the process, Thorpe said.
“Really good documentation can take time. But when I get in the weeds of ‘This is exactly how I want to see it, these are the exact next steps at this exact time,’ then when I hand the process over, I know I’ve given them all the information I know,” Thorpe said.
It’s also important to ask what support a person needs for the assignment. Guida used to grow frustrated that younger generations of employees would ask for so much help whenever he delegated an assignment.
It wasn’t until he took a course on intergenerational relationships that he realized he was looking at it all wrong. Now, he makes sure to ask any employee if they want him to walk them through the process.
“It’s just a dialogue, you can’t always assume [people know what to do],” Guida said. “The old me would’ve been like, ‘You should know how to do it, go do it.’ Now it’s, ‘Hey, do you want me to tell you how to do this in a prescriptive way?’ So, it’s that checking in.”
5. Establish Check-Ins
Projects don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes other priorities interfere or complications come up that make the initial timeline impossible to meet. Other times, an employee might take off in a different direction.
As a manager, it’s important not to swoop in at the slightest misstep and try to save the day. This can erode trust with your staff and create a team afraid to make decisions.
Instead, use one-on-ones to check in on the progress of the assignment. During these meetings, offer to be a sounding board. Ask how the project is going and give them room to bring up any questions or obstacles they might have.
If it’s a longer-term project, you can also set established checkpoints to keep tabs on their progress. This could be at stages when you want to be involved in making a decision or at specified deadline intervals. The goal for these meetings, however, should be to coach and guide rather than to fix mistakes.
“If you don’t give them the opportunity to learn and make mistakes, they’re not going to get any better.”
If a project isn’t going according to plan, don’t freak out. The worst thing you can do is blame the employee or jump to conclusions. Instead, seek to understand their approach. Ask questions like, “Can you walk me through that decision?” and “Tell me more about this”
In doing so, you can get a fuller picture of the choices they made or why the project is taking longer than expected. You might find out that the person made the best of a difficult situation or perhaps came up with a better solution than what you pictured. If they did make a mistake, identify what they did well and then coach them on how they can improve for next time.
“If you don’t give them the opportunity to learn and make mistakes, they’re not going to get any better,” Sander said. “So you have to be OK with your team making mistakes, and you even have to encourage people to be proactive and get out there and try to make mistakes.”
6. Celebrate the Work and Provide Feedback
Once the task or project is complete, don’t overlook the importance of celebrating the work and providing feedback. This is your opportunity to bring the experience full circle for the employee and build trust within your team.
When a person takes on a delegated task, it’s either to help them learn a new skill or to help the company. Make sure to take time to celebrate their accomplishments. If they like to be praised in public, write a brief team or company-wide Slack message highlighting their work. If they prefer a private approach, let them know one on one that you appreciated their work and why it was important.
When it comes to providing feedback, don’t start with their mistakes. Even if you know what it takes to execute a task, you weren’t involved in it day to day. Similar to the check-in process, this is your opportunity to get the full picture of the employee’s experience.
Hocking suggests asking questions like: “What was this experience like for you?,” “What did you learn?” and “Where did you get stuck?” Doing so will help you provide more thoughtful feedback that will actually help the employee in the long run.
“It might bring to light something you may not have noticed when you read through [their work] quickly,” Hocking said. “Then you can say “That’s helpful to hear your thinking on this. Let me share with you where I’m coming from.”
Give Yourself Time to Build Your Delegation Muscle
Don’t be surprised if your first few tries at delegation don’t go well. It’s a skill just like any other, and there are bound to be miscommunications and errors in the process.
But the more you practice it, the more trust you’ll build up in your team, which will empower them to make more decisions, develop new skills and become leaders in their own right. And that’s the true hallmark of a great leader — not how much work you take on yourself.