When delegation goes wrong


Delegation is a critical skill for managers and leaders. When it goes well, it enables staff, expands skillsets, increases workflow and information-sharing. When it goes wrong, it can lead to disaster.

Before we discuss what effective delegation looks like, let’s talk about a few examples that we don’t want to see:

  • Lack of delegation
  • Delegation without key information
  • Delegation without open communication channels
  • Delegating to the wrong person

Let’s look at these in turn.

Lack of Delegation

The first one is fundamentally simple but has broad consequences. A manager completely fails to use delegation as a tool, meaning they become the sole decision-maker in the organisation for anything important. As a result, subordinates don’t learn how to execute; they never develop confidence in their abilities, and they never learn about the broader context they operate within. These effects lead to demotivated staff and lost productivity throughout the organisation for which that manager is responsible. In addition, the manager themselves cannot devote time to personal development, or even to higher-value tasks that only they can execute.

In extreme cases, lack of delegation can mean that accidents or missed opportunities occur because the manager is not leveraging the organisational intelligence around and below them.

Delegation without key information

For delegation to be successful, managers have to provide all of the required information (including expectations of delivery) to the person to whom they are delegating. A lack of clarity at this stage leads to anxiety on the part of the individual receiving the task and invariably gives rise to delay and rework at best. The job being delegated, its key stakeholders, the required dates for delivery and any supporting information (such as resources available and required) are all necessary for delegation to start successfully.

Delegation without open communication channels

We have to allow for questions at any stage of a delegated task. Team members have to be able to clarify expectations, discuss challenges and provide updates to ensure we are all aligned. Too often, managers transfer work to more junior staff members who have no idea what is required to complete the work successfully. A dictatorial “boss figure” who doesn’t allow for questions to be asked or provide a structure for updates will disable their team from delivering effectively.

Delegating to the wrong person

This example is not a criticism of the individual receiving the task. If a manager fails to ensure that the work they delegate is within the capability of the individual receiving it, then the manager is the one at fault. Staff need to be adequately trained, sufficiently experienced and have enough capacity to take on the work successfully. Delegating a high-profile task to an undertrained or under-resourced staff member is a recipe for failure.

In a medical context, for example, a senior nurse asking a non-nursing member of staff to administer medication would fall into this category. This kind of failed delegation could lead to patient injury and lawsuits against the hospital.

The above examples are not a complete picture of what poor delegation looks like, but these are some of the common mistakes I’ve seen. I’ve also made one or two of them (both as a manager and a member of staff receiving a delegated task).

So, what does good look like?

Delegate activity to the lowest level in the hierarchy you can

Jocko Willink describes the need for “Decentralised Command” – an interview here gives a good walkthrough of what he means.

I’ve also described how David Marquet handled delegation as a submarine captain, moving responsibility for execution to where the knowledge is.

Both of these approaches are variants of the same principle – empower people in the organisation to do the work they are best able to do. Be an enabler, rather than a blocker.

Doing this in a structured manner encourages initiative and innovation in the organisation; it also builds skills and knowledge and increases organisational throughput.

Delegate with clear and open communication

Provide all the required information for someone to be successful – I’ve mentioned some of the key elements above. Don’t hoard knowledge or send someone off to do a piece of work without being intentional about what they will need to know. Set up times for Q&A at the outset and ensure regular checkpoints occur during the work. Ask questions of the person receiving the work to make sure they understand what you need to have them accomplish. Consider encouraging them to ask questions of you. Always be supportive of the work that has been done, and constructive in any criticism.

Ensure appropriate supervision is in place

Make sure that you know what state the required work is in at all times. You should be able to provide required updates to your superiors without having to check with the individual or team executing the task(s). This leads to the final point:

Always remain accountable

I can’t stress this point enough. Managers who delegate responsibility for work being done retain accountability. It is always our responsibility to ensure that work gets done by the right time, at the right cost and with the right quality. Failures in delivery are never the fault of the individual executing the work that has been delegated – they always remain in the ownership of the accountable party. If you delegated the work, that’s you!

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