The Art of Delegation

“For every problem, there is a solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.”
H. L. Mencken

If you’re above 40 years of age, you probably remember the comedian Buddy Hackett. He said, “My mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it.”

Well, in most of our jobs, we may feel like we’ve only got two choices: to do it yourself or to let it go.

In reality, there’s an excellent third choice in some situations … and that is … to delegate a particular task to someone else. Mind you, I said “delegate,” not “dump.” There is a big difference.

Delegation … done right … can be an excellent choice because it’s a win-win. It shows you trust the other person to do the task and do it well. You’re developing his potential and boosting his self-esteem … at the same time you’re clearing a task off your plate.

Here’s the right way to delegate.

=> 1. Communicate the importance of the task.

You see, when you ask kids to do something, they always ask, “Why?” Well adults are simply babies in big bodies. They wonder the same thing. So don’t leave the other person in the dark as to “why” a particular task is important. Tell them.

=> 2. Clearly define the task and your expectations.

Don’t assume the other person understands what you want. Many times he won’t. And as a result, the other person may do what he thinks is right, but you won’t be happy.

Leave no room for misinterpretation. Ask lots of questions and get lots of feedback on his understanding.

It’s like the couple in their 60’s, married for 40 years. An angel came to them and said, “You’ve been such an ideal couple that the Lord wants to bless you with one wish each.”

The woman said, “Great. I want to be on a Caribbean cruise,” and instantly she was on a cruise.

The man said, “I’d love to have a wife 30 years younger than me.” And poof, instantly, he was 90 years old.

=> 3. Give the task and instructions to one person only … if possible and feasible.

In several studies of information flow in corporations, the researchers have discovered that the average hourly employee gets less than 20% of the message the CEO thinks they are getting. As the message goes from the top through several people and several levels of bureaucracy, the original message gets badly distorted.

Such was the case when Billy Graham brought his crusade to Russia. His advance commercials stated that he would be preaching on the Bible verse that read, “The body is weak, but the spirit is strong.”

Of course, his commercials had to be translated into Russian. They were, and they came out saying, “He can’t stand up, but he has good Vodka.”

The point is … the fewer people that have to translate your message, the clearer it will be. So delegate to one person if possible.

=> 4. Document the date you gave the instruction.

Simple enough. Both of you should write down the date you give out the assignment. Better yet, both of you should write out the details of the delegated task, answering the questions, “WHO will do WHAT by WHEN?”

And yes, I know people hate to write things down. They’ll say they don’t need to do that because they’ll remember what has to be done. But I always tell people, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.”

=> 5. Agree upon the expected deadline for the completion of the task.

It’s critical. Research says that a goal without a deadline … almost NEVER works. In fact a goal without a deadline is nothing more than fanciful thinking.

=> 6. Never give an instruction to someone incapable of completing it.

Too many bosses think they can simply dictate the fact that something has to be done … and that’s that. No it isn’t. Sometimes the other person needs more than a clear instruction on WHAT to do. He may need a little help on HOW to do it.

=> 7. Require periodic progress reports and meetings.

It’s the best way of ensuring the other person is making progress.

And then when you hold your meetings, facilitate, don’t dictate. Pose questions that guide and encourage her to find answers to her own questions … rather than spoon feed answers. That way, you’re developing the other person’s potential instead of creating more dependency.

As it says in the book, “Power Tools” by Sam Deep and Lyle Sussman, “Replace orders with suggestions.” Or use statements such as, “Here’s another possibility … or … you might consider this,” if the employee is failing to reach the desired result.

Also use “preview” in addition to “review” at your meetings. Don’t get caught up thinking that reviews have to be entirely on the past — rehashing every right and wrong move the other person made. Spend time previewing the future. Ask, “What do you expect to happen between now and the next time we meet?”

Of course, don’t forget to recognize success. As the other person makes progress on the delegated task, express your admiration and appreciation. As Dr. Richard Curwin notes in his research, you’ll be much more effective when you challenge the other person to succeed rather than threaten him if he doesn’t.

You simply can’t skip periodic progress reports. You’ve got to dig in with some questions. That’s what one police officer had to do, according to jokester Ruben Quezada, who shared his story in “Reader’s Digest.”

Ruben said, A cop pulls this guy over and says, “Sir, I need you to breathe into this Breathalyzer for me.”

The guy says, “I can’t do that. I’m asthmatic and if I do that I’ll have a really big asthma attack.”

“Okay,” the policeman said, “Then I’ll need you to come down to the station with me. We’ll have to do some blood work — just to make sure.”

“Sir, I can’t do that either.” responded the motorist. “I’m a hemophiliac, and if I do that I’ll bleed to death.”

“Okay, fine. Then, I need a urine sample from you.”

“I can’t do that either, sir. I’m sorry, but I’m a diabetic, and if I do that my sugar will get really, really low.”

“Okay, then why don’t you step out of the car and walk this white line for me,” the officer says.

“I can’t do that either, officer.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m drunk.”

=> 8. Offer to help … if it’s appropriate.

The emphasis here is on the word “appropriate.” Remember you are delegating a task and you don’t want to pick that task back up and do it yourself. But sometimes the other person needs a bit of training, motivation, or guidance to get the job done.

So ask yourself, before you give some extra assistance, “Will your extra assistance help or hurt the other person in the long run? Will it develop his skills or increase his dependency?” If you decide your assistance is mostly for the good, go ahead and offer it.

It’s like the divorce court judge who said, “I’ve reviewed the case and have decided to give your wife $350 a week.”

The defendant replied, “That’s really generous of you, your Honor. And every now and then I’ll try to send her a few bucks myself.”

Again, offer to help if it’s for the good of the other person.


=> 9. Follow through.

Never assume your instructions have been completed. You’ve got to check it for yourself. As the old adage goes, you can’t EXPECT what you don’t INSPECT.

So now the ball’s in your court. You may not have to … need to … or even want to … do everything by yourself. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Some things should be delegated for your good and the good of the other person. And I’ve just given you the proper way to do it.

Action:  Pick out the two steps that you most often overlook or that need the most improvement. And figure out how you will do them better the next time you delegate a task.