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How to Delegate Tasks

 How to delegate tasks

Delegating tasks is something every project manager needs to get good at. If you want to do more work, you need more people doing the work. It’s not rocket science to realise that the project manager can’t do all the tasks. There just aren’t enough hours in the day (and you probably don’t have the skills to do everything anyway).

Knowing how to delegate tasks isn’t something I was ever taught. I’ve learned by experience, and not all my delegating experiences were that successful. Once I forgot to tell my colleague when I needed the work completed by and then got cross that she hadn’t done it fast enough… I didn’t make that mistake again.

This article is my complete guide to delegating tasks. I show you why delegating work is part of your job and how your team comes into all this. I’ll explain the Skill and Will model that you can use to work out how much support a team member needs once you’ve delegated the work to them. Then I’ll walk you through an example of how to delegate something so that it’s a pleasant experience for both of you.

Let’s get started by first looking at what delegation means.

What Delegation Means

Let’s define delegation.

Delegation is where responsibility or authority for a task is assigned to someone, normally from a manager or someone more senior in the organisation to a team member.

That’s it. It’s just giving someone else jobs to do. So why aren’t you doing it?

3 Reasons Why You Aren’t Delegating

There are 3 reasons why you don’t delegate as much as you could or should.

  1. It’s too much like hard work: It’s hard to set out the parameters, give the instructions, be there to answer questions and then follow up. Much easier to do it yourself.
  2. Other people will think you’re a slacker: Shouldn’t this be your job anyway?
  3. You’re the best at your job: No one else can do it as well as you could because of your superior experience and brainpower.

You might know how to do the work and been rewarded for doing it that particular way in the past. You know the tasks and can do them quickly, and well. You’re worried that other people might not deliver with the same quality results that you can.

You need to get over yourself.

It’s your job to do the hard stuff and to bring others along, improving their skills. It’s your job to manage the project and get the outcome that the business wants, not do all the tasks. And it’s your job to spend your time on the areas where you can add the most value, backing out of the stuff you used to do before managing projects was your main focus.

You can still give up doing the tasks, get more done and come out of it in a more powerful position, not one that suggests you have lost power through no longer keeping those tasks.

How? Let’s talk about that now.

First Steps for Delegating Tasks

In her book, The Confidence Effect*, Grace Killelea dedicates a chapter to the art of delegating work.

“As we assume more, and greater, responsibilities in our ascension through the ranks of leadership, naturally we can’t keep doing the things we did two or even three positions ago,” Killelea writes.

She goes on to point out that you didn’t get a promotion to do what you used to do. You moved up through the hierarchy because they need you to do what needs to be done at this new level, and that’s often a lot more strategic than your last job.

“Quite frankly,” she writes, “they expect you to delegate those things you don’t need to do yourself.”

So your first step in delegating effectively is to believe that it is your job and your right to delegate work to other people.

Grace Killelea quote

Get a Good Team And Work With Them

If you want to delegate to other people, you need people to delegate to. That’s why your team is important On a project that could be your workstream leads, subject matter experts or a project co-ordinator. Get the best people you can.

Don’t Micromanage the Team

Don’t delegate tasks and then sit on their shoulders watching them do the work. It’s too much effort and it takes a lot of your time.

You need to be able to trust your colleagues to do their job (and if you can’t get them to step up, read my Ultimate Guide to Getting People to Take Responsibility At Work).

See It From Their Perspective

Put yourself in their shoes. Taking on these tasks should give them more responsibility and exposure to new activities. It’s a learning experience. If you don’t delegate, you are depriving them of the opportunity for them to use their skills, build their own confidence and get creative solving problems.

Delegation – done well – should help them.

By ‘done well’ I mean don’t delegate the awful admin tasks that everyone hates and expect them to be grateful. They might need to be delegated but sorting out a massive pile of invoices isn’t going to be a fantastic learning experience for many people.

Understanding Skill and Will

I find the Situational Leadership model from Hersey and Blanchard helpful for delegating. It basically involves looking at someone’s skill at doing a particular job and their willingness to do it (or competence and commitment, to put it another way). There are 4 possibilities:

High skill, high will: Result! Hardly any work for you to do. Just tell them what you want and let them get on with it.

High skill, low will: This could happen because they have done the job forever and aren’t motivated to do it any longer. When you delegate the task to them, think about how you can motivate them to complete it.

Low skill, high will: They might not have a clue what you are asking them to do but they are very enthusiastic. You’ll need to spend time with them explaining what you want and probably coaching them through it the first time. It will feel time-consuming and if it would be faster to do the job yourself but remember that you are setting them up for success and that next time they won’t need so much support.

Low skill, low will: Bummer. These people don’t have the capability to do the job and don’t want to do it anyway. Delegate, coach, support and follow up, but expect the results to be pretty poor. You’ll want to look at ways of increasing their motivation, making the job more interesting and engaging them. Hopefully, once they know what new skills you are prepared to share with them, their will level will go up a bit.

Ultimately, if you can’t shift these people into a role where they can contribute effectively, these are the team members you’ll be wanting to get rid of.

Quote about delegating

How to Delegate

We’ve looked at why you might not be delegating and why it is expected of you. I’ve talked about some basic ground rules for delegating and how skill and will come into play. Now let’s look at how to delegate an actual task.

In this example you’re going to be delegating producing a monthly project report to the project co-ordinator on the team. You know she is interested in being a project manager one day so she’s keen to learn and prepared to take the job on – she’s got high will. Thankfully for us.

She’s not done project reporting before so she’s got low skill.

Explain the Work

First, arrange a meeting. It doesn’t have to be formal. Spell out what you want: “I’d like you to take responsibility for preparing the monthly project report from now on.” Don’t hint. Tell. You could ask instead of tell, but be prepared for what will happen if they say no. You could be totally stuck without them taking on this task, so if it’s within your power to delegate through telling, do that. You’ll know your team and the best way to phrase it to get the answer you want.

Now explain the task at high level, stressing any deadlines. “It’s a Word document that summarises the project status and it has to be produced every month by the 3rd working day in the month for the month just gone. So that’s the third working day of April to cover the work that was done on the project in March. OK?”

Explain all the detailed steps – if your delegatee has done the work before then you won’t have to go into much detail, but if they don’t have the experience then cover everything they need to know. In this example it could be things like:

  • Who or where to get the updates from
  • The language and tone that is appropriate
  • The audience for the report
  • Who is going to approve the report before it is issued
  • Whether you are going to send it out or whether she can send it once approved.

Check They Understand

Check understanding at each step of the way.

Check understanding at each step of the way.

Don’t ask: “Do you understand?” I do that with my boys because the words just slip out. I’m pretty sure they don’t understand what I’ve asked of them, and that they don’t know how to respond to “Do you understand?” either.

It’s better to ask them to summarise what you’ve asked them to do. Then you can check their understanding.

Monitor and Follow Up

Ask if they have questions. Periodically check in over the time that they have to complete the task to ensure that work is progressing as planned. In this example, you’d want to check a few days prior to the report being due, perhaps asking to see a draft.

If your delegatee is experienced, you can get away with doing less follow up and monitoring, but don’t forget that you gave them the work to do in the first place.

Once the work is complete, thank them and debrief informally so that you can both be better at giving and receiving assignments next time. That’s effective delegation!

Key Takeaways

  • Delegating is part of a manager’s job. You can’t do it all.
  • Surrounding yourself with good people makes delegating work easier.
  • Understanding the skills and motivation levels of your team helps you decide how to manage the delegation of tasks.
  • You should always follow up so that no work is overlooked.

* That’s an affiliate link. It doesn’t cost you any extra if you buy the book.

How to delegate

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

Comments

  1. Monique Mayers says

    Thanks for the tips to help us delegate effectively so that my team shares the workload to make progress that benefits everyone. Kudos!

  2. Eileen says

    Sometimes, I’ll ask, “Does that make sense?” not in a condescending way but in a way that makes it look like I may have not been clear in my explanation. It then gives the person the opportunity to continue talking about if needed.

  3. Risa says

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Really amazing article and extremely helpful, thanks so much! Question for you: Instead of saying “Do you understand,” how do you phrase to a colleague that you want them to repeat the process back to you? I’ve tried phrasing it a couple of times to myself and it often sounds condescending to me, I don’t want to offend my team by phrasing this the wrong way. In my situation, I am the newest and youngest member of the team, and they often know more about details than I, but I also need to ensure they know what I’m expecting of them.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      I agree that, “Can you paraphrase that for me so I’m clear you’ve understood?” or words to that effect will definitely sound patronising. Hi Risa. How about, “So what are you going to do next/now?” Or, “Talk me through the next steps so we can move this forward.” “Who do you need help from to get going on that?” It’s not exactly going to give you the same result, but it will give you enough of an idea. Hopefully! Anyone else got any ideas?

  4. Lisa says

    I needed this today – thank you! And – what great advice on not asking, “Do you understand?” I do that with my son all the time and now realize asking him to tell me in his own words what I just said is far more effective. It absolutely makes sense that this would also be true in the work world.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      Hi Lisa, glad it struck a chord with you! I have to confess to not always doing it: sometimes “Do you understand?” just pops out but at least when it happens I know I shouldn’t be doing it!

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