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The art of delegation

20 May 2013

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Why do some managers succeed more than others? How do they deliver what appears to be an impossible workload and yet have a work/life balance? How do they generate staff engagement and loyalty and continue to achieve more with fewer resources? Welcome to the art of delegation.

Delegation can be thought of in different ways. For some people delegation looks like consultation, such as involving staff in decisions and activities, although the ultimate decision control is retained by the leader. Delegation can look like dumping or as though the manager has decided, “I don’t want to do this, so you can, and I will wash my hands of it”. This will frequently lead to disaster and is much more likely to fail, or the employee may simply decide not to do it on purpose. 

Delegation can look like ‘passing the monkey back’,1 that is, saying “you have responsibility for this problem, I’ll help you with it but it isn’t my problem, it’s yours”. It can also look like a yo-yo; “take this on, now I’ll have it back.” However with the advent of Generation Z coming into the workplaces, who seek ‘individualism,’ and Generation Y with their ‘search for meaning,’ who by now are reaching managerial positions in the workplace, delegation is taking on a different meaning revolving around empowerment. 

These days, delegation is not only the remit of the manager – anyone can delegate. People have increasing lists of things to do both in and outside of work, and less time. The advent of technology has enhanced connectivity and accessibility, but has increased workloads and expectations of turnaround and availability. 

Taking it down to the bottom line, the main reason to delegate is that it helps to get more done. It also helps you respond quicker to changing demands in a business, as those delegated with authority can respond operationally to changing needs in the environment or with customers. It frees the manager up to deal with more strategic and impactful activities. It can leverage resources better if tasks are divided according to people’s strengths, giving the task to someone who is well-placed to undertake it, based on their knowledge, skills and interest. It helps people develop by testing their limits and identifying areas of potential excellence. It helps employees “be the best they can possibly be and fully optimising one’s strengths”2 as well as making them feel part of the decisions they have to carry out, which helps with employee engagement, motivation and ultimately succession planning.

However, delegation is a ‘give and take’ activity and not all tasks can be treated equally. The delegator needs to have built trust in the other person’s skills, capabilities and judgement, typically over a period of time. They need to have considered if the task is truly one that can be delegated and isn’t a specific managerial responsibility, such as performance management, or requiring their knowledge such as a medical specialism. They need to know the timeframes are realistic and that the situation isn’t urgent or medically critical, as that doesn’t allow time for the receiver to learn, nor to fix things if they don’t go quite right. They need to know the risks involved and the impact of the task if it goes wrong, and if this can be managed through monitoring. 

The ‘giver’ therefore needs to think about what time they may need to give, both in the briefing and during the learning period. They need to be self-reflective about why they haven’t delegated before, what habits they may need to consider changing and be willing to let go of the control. They need to give guidelines around how the ‘receiver’ should approach any decisions they shall need to make, giving them the authority to make decisions within a framework, and guidance on what and when they should refer back. They should be clear about why the task is important and how it links to the bigger picture and what the value is in doing it. 

In the act of delegating, the delegator needs to be specific about the outputs needed, being guiding rather than prescriptive around how the task should be undertaken. One of the huge benefits of delegating is tapping into other people’s strengths and approaches, and enabling them to bring something complementary to the activity to enhance the overall outcome. 

They also need to find out if the delegate is interested and motivated in the task, if it suits their strengths and allows them opportunities to fail and learn, as well as celebrate their successes. They need to ask the delegate if they are willing to take on the responsibility. They need to monitor and feed back while the task is being undertaken, but they need to bear in mind they have not delegated the ultimate responsibility for it; the buck stops with them. 

In turn, the delegate needs to take responsibility for offering and showing initiative to take responsibility for new tasks. They need to build on the trust in the relationship, and manage themselves and their work to create a suitable environment for someone to delegate to them.3 They need to be an active participator in the monitoring and feedback process. They need to be willing to learn and seek success, but not be afraid to fail. They need to be aware of their own strengths and interests, and be willing to speak up when they don’t feel the task suits them.

Delegation is not optional for the manager seeking to excel. Every manager should regularly take time out to reflect on what they are doing that could be delegated, to grow the power of their team and achieve a better work/life balance.



Oncken W Jr, Wass DL. “Who’s Got the Monkey?” Harvard Business Review  Management Time. Harvard Business School Publishing. November-December 1999.

Brook J. Strengths Partnership Ltd. At full stretch… Talent Management. Available at:

3. Dierendonck DV, Dijkstra M. The Role of the Follower in the Relationship Between Empowering Leadership and Empowerment: A Longitudinal Investigation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 2012;42,S1:E1–E20.