How to Delegate More Effectively: Four Approaches

Trust between people is not enough to make delegation work. Leaders must also scrutinize the level of trust in the process — and match their approach carefully.

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Delegation still bedevils many leaders. From the overworked manager trying to alleviate burnout to the vice president trying to take a vacation, many leaders need to delegate more but avoid it. Transferring responsibilities to someone else often creates worry, friction, or unsatisfying results. But delegation is not optional: Individuals and organizations can’t grow unless people learn how to effectively delegate both tasks and decision-making.

In our work over the past decade, we’ve seen delegation arise as a leadership challenge in organizations across many industries. Indeed, in health care, manufacturing, and life sciences companies alike, the question of when and how to delegate remains difficult. To address this problem, we developed a framework based on two core dynamics at the heart of effective delegation: people and process. Trust in people is nothing new to conversations on effective delegation; however, trust in organizational processes is an equally important but underappreciated consideration in delegation decisions.

In our work with leaders, we’ve seen that no matter how reliable an individual employee may be, if the underlying organizational process that is central to the delegation is erratic or underdeveloped, delegation tends to break down. So our framework advises leaders to consider two key questions when entertaining the delegation scenarios: “To what extent do I trust the people?” and “To what extent do I trust the process?”

Many well-intentioned and trustworthy people have failed to execute on a delegated task because of an underdeveloped process.

Trust in people is based on a repeated track record of meeting goals, shared behavioral norms, and consistent interpersonal relationships. It is a trust in the individual’s abilities and skills across a variety of domains: Does Mary have the requisite skills to deliver the results she promised? Does David treat team members in a respectful manner? Trust in process, on the other hand, is based on organizational functioning and speaks to whether a process delivers consistent, predictable, and actionable outcomes: Does the R&D process yield new, marketable products on a consistent basis? Is our sales forecasting process accurate in its revenue predictions?

In our consulting engagements, we’ve seen many well-intentioned and trustworthy individuals fail to execute on a delegated task because of an underdeveloped process; therefore, we suggest that it is the nexus of trust in people and trust in process that should drive the form of delegation that a leader chooses. This article offers a framework with four ways leaders can approach delegation with the confidence that their choice matches the trust level at hand.


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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
This article has helped me to understand the process of delegation much more clearly than previously.  It never occurred to me before to break down delegation into these phases.  Typically, one might just think, "I'm going to give this to Joe.  He can handle it."  (empowerment)  Or, "Jim needs some support and training here so he can understand how to get things done efficiently at this position." (educate)  In many final production applications, the delegation style is most likely on the right side of the chart, where the process is already pretty well refined, and the focus is on building employee skills and confidence.  
Stuart Roehrl