Delegating is a critical skill for leaders, yet many struggle to do it, Deborah Grayson Riegel, a leadership coach and principal at The Boda Group, writes in Harvard Business Review. She offers eight tips on how leaders can delegate successfully.
Why delegating is important—and how to get started
While business professionals stress the importance of delegating, "for many leaders, delegating feels like something they know they should do, but don't do," Riegel writes.
For leaders interested in delegating, the first step is to better "understand their own resistance," Riegel writes.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, both professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recommend leaders identify their professional goal and the behaviors that are keeping them from achieving that goal. Kegan and Lahey then recommend leaders examine those behaviors and ask themselves how they'd feel if the opposite occurred.
For example, they write a senior sales leader might want to delegate follow-up calls to big clients to his sales team, but the leader hasn't updated the appropriate database or might be in the habit of doing the calls. Riegel writes, "What if updating the … database in a timely manner meant pushing off other, more important activities? What if not calling customers meant that they felt ignored or disrespected, and they took their business elsewhere?"
This practice activates the "emotional immune system," Riegel writes, which helps ward off negative feelings, such as fear, loss of control, and disappointment. "For the senior leader to start delegating and stick with it, he needs to address these feelings, challenge his own assumptions about 'what if,' and try small, low-risk delegation experiments to see whether his assumptions are rooted in the truth or in his desire for safety," Riegel writes.
8 practices of successful delegators
"Once a leader has begun to shift his or her mindset, it's time to start shifting behaviors," Riegel writes. To help leaders understand just how to change, Riegel shares eight practices "of leaders who delegate successfully":
- They select 'the right person' to do the job. Riegel emphasizes that picking the right person "isn't always about who can do it." Instead, delegators should think about someone who is ready for a challenge or needs to develop their skills. It's important to be able to explain why you chose the person you delegated your task to, she adds.
- They're explicit about the employee's level of autonomy. Successful delegators make sure their team members know where they have autonomy over their task and where they don't, Riegel writes.
- They make the desired results clear. Successful delegators make their expectations about the outcome clear, explain how the task fits into the larger picture, and provide criteria for measuring success, Riegel writes.
- They provide the necessary resources. Successful delegators ensure the employee has the money, training, supplies, time, help from others, workspace, and other resources necessary to do the job, Riegel writes.
- They establish checkpoints. Delegators should check in periodically with the employees by establishing specific milestones throughout the task during which the employee can receive feedback, Riegel writes.
- They encourage innovation. Delegators need to "set aside their attachment to how things have been done in the past" so they're able to recognize and reward new approaches that work, Riegel writes.
- They create a motivating environment. "Successful delegators know when to cheerlead, coach, step in, step back, adjust expectations, make themselves available, and celebrate successes," Riegel writes.
- They are tolerant of risks and mistakes and make them educational. Delegators need to take any mistakes as an opportunity to learn, rather than proof that they should have never delegated their task in the first place, Riegel writes.
"Delegating well helps leaders maximize their resources," Riegel writes, "ensuring that they're focusing on their highest priorities, developing their team members, and creating a culture where delegation isn’t just expected—it's embedded in the culture" (Riegel, Harvard Business Review, 8/15).