do you suck at delegating?

Delegating effectively is one of the most important things you can do as a manager, but it’s also one of the most difficult. Are you making any of these five common delegation mistakes?

1. Delegating without making sure that you and your employee are on the same page. Managers often forget to make sure they and their employees agree about what a successful outcome would look like and then are surprised when the final work product isn’t what they were expecting. To avoid this “implementation gap,” always talk explicitly at the start about what a successful outcome would look like.

2. Delegating without staying involved to monitor progress. It’s easy to assume that if you’ve talked through the project at the start, the work should happen according to plan. But in reality, you need to stay involved and check in as the work progresses. Those check-ins are what will allow you to keep the work on course, catch problems early, and change course if necessary.

3. Delegating without truly delegating. Sometimes a manager is so nervous about, or invested in, a project that even though she has assigned it to someone else, she doesn’t really let go of it, not fully relinquishing ownership and sometimes doing some of the work herself. This leads to confusion about who is actually responsible for the work getting done and diminished ownership (and thus diminished performance) from the employee it was assigned to.

4. Feeling that if you can do it yourself, you should. This is a natural temptation, but it can result in underutilizing your staff and keeping your own plate too crammed, preventing you from spending time in the areas where you add the most value to your organization. After all, the whole point of managing is getting things done through other people!

5. Delegating to the wrong person. When delegating work, be sure to consider who actually has the talent and skills to get the job done rather than who should be able to do the task at hand because of background or position. (Of course, if you repeatedly find yourself reluctant to delegate responsibility to someone, you need to assess whether or not that person is a good fit for the role.)

At its core, delegating well is a microcosm of good management: It’s about figuring out what needs to be done, finding the right people to do it, clearly communicating what you’re looking for, following up to ensure you’re getting results, and creating accountability. And that, in a nutshell, is management!

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Ariancita*

    Oh, I wish my manager would read this. :)

    Also, something I butt heads on with my manager: I direct a project and part of delegating, for me, is to also create opportunities for my team members to grow professionally and improve their skill set. My manager thinks it’s not important. We get everything in by deadline, so that’s not the issue. She just doesn’t think I should take an interest in their development. I think one part of my job, besides of course delivering work projects that are well done, in time, and on budget, is to develop the team. Maybe there’s a balance between delegating and mentoring?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm. I’d say it’s part of managing, for sure, but not necessarily part of delegating. Delegating is really about getting work executed well.

      Part of managing, on the other hand, is indeed about developing staff. (With the caveat that managers should also make good decisions about where to invest resources in developing staff ; some things are developable skills and others are generally not, at least not with the amount of time it’s reasonable for a manager to invest.)

      1. Ariancita*

        Well let me give you an example for how it has to do with delegating: There’s a task for the project that needs to be done. It requires a certain skillset to accomplish. I delegate it to the person that’s required to do it (we’re a very small team) with thorough instructions, an example of what it should look like, etc. I get the project back and it’s full of mistakes. Now, I could correct those mistakes myself (since I know I could do it well and very quickly), but instead I return it to the person and explain what needs to be done and offer to guide her on it as she is still developing the skillset to do the project well (she has some of the skillset, but not all–something I only learn after I receive the mistake-laden project). So I mentor her on honing those skills. However, my manger would just be happy if I basically corrected everything myself (even though we’re fine on time/deadline). But then I’m basically doing the project, no longer delegating, and my colleague isn’t honing a skillset she’ll need in order to be successful in her position. And before you ask, my manager’s reasons are very weirdly fluffy and having nothing to do with anything (things like: “Well, I don’ think she’s interested in improving in that area..” like it’s a matter of personal preference and not something she needs to improve on in order to be successful in her role). Or am I just being weird in my expectations? I’m completely open to hearing I’m off in this, if that’s the case. :)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’m definitely a fan of having people make their corrections themselves, rather than you having to do it. But in this case, I’d say to have her turn in a “slice” of the work before she gets too far, so that you can look it over and talk to her about what needs to be changed before she gets too far, so that she’s not doing the whole thing wrong.

          However, I’d also say that if this is happening chronically with the same person (I can’t tell if it is or not), it might need to be addressed as a performance issue, not a development issue.

          1. Ariancita*

            Oh, I like the “slice” idea! I’ll definitely implement this. Thank you; it’s very useful. It’s too soon for me to know if it’s performance or development. Time will tell (if the product improves, etc).

    2. Josh S*

      A lot of (middle) managers fail to recognize that identifying, attracting, retaining, and developing talent is one of their most important jobs–if not the most important. Talk to a CEO or other C-level manager, and they’ll almost universally talk about the importance of having good people.

      The point is, good for you in taking an interest in your team members, Ariancita, and ignore your manager. ;)

        1. Ariancita*

          I’m managing the project and the team members when related to the project (but not the same team members for other projects we work on together that I don’t direct). So it’s very murky. But, it’s made less murky by developing positive professional relationships with them and helping everyone to feel ownership for their work product. It really hasn’t been an issue in that sense, though the potential is there.

  2. Scott T.*

    I think the most important “trick” to effectively delegating is to hire people who are better than you at their primary job role and then trust them to do their job.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m actually going to disagree with that. There are cases where a manager needs a very specific outcome but doesn’t describe it adequately, or doesn’t mention that Person X needs to be bought in before the work is finalized, or doesn’t make clear the measures of success, or otherwise doesn’t set it up correctly up-front. It also doesn’t work with less experienced/more junior stuff.

  3. AD*

    Can I add one? Delegating something you would not be willing to do yourself. This comes up more in a non-office setting, but if the task is really dirty or potentially unsafe, handing it off will lose your employees’ respect in a hurry.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This has come up here before and I know it’s a popular thing to say, but I actually disagree a bit! Not about stuff that’s unsafe, but about “less desirable” work: Some of those undesirable tasks are indeed lower-level tasks, and it makes sense to assign them to a more junior person or someone whose job they fit in better with. People with more senior jobs and/or getting paid more should stay focused on work that only they can do well because it’s a smarter use of the employer’s resources. So if something needs to be cleaned up, say, or if someone needs to haul boxes upstairs, the VP shouldn’t be spending her time on that; it should be delegated.

      1. AD*

        I’m thinking more like a retail setting where some little kid pukes in the dressing room. It’s really not part of ANYBODY’S job to clean up puke, but the shift supervisor should suck it up and do it over making one of her people do it.

        Now, if the district manager happened to be passing through that day, I wouldn’t expect her to grab the mop.

        1. Anonymous*

          At one point, I may have agreed wit this. I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for 10 years now and I’ve cleaned up my fair share of vomit and other disgusting fluids. I definitely try to delegate that task if I can, now.

          1. Jacob N.*

            I would agree, Anonymous. Once upon a time, before I completed my bachelor’s degree, I was a retail worker at a local small-box grocery store. There was a child who vomited in one of the aisles, and I was asked to clean it up.

            I would say to AD, with all respect, that doing little things like this, even in a retail setting, can make you stand out. I was eventually promoted to an assistant manager position, and it then became my job to delegate some work, so I certainly appreciated having been on both sides of the issue.

            Granted, I did not have the ability to hire and fire, but I was certainly consulted for my views on particular applicants, and my manager there to this day is one of my best (personal) references (my work references are based in my field of study). So I would say that even something as trite-seeming as cleaning up after a sick child can make you stand out.

        2. KellyK*

          That makes a lot of sense. My favorite manager when I had a food service job was the one who was willing to take out the garbage himself.

          I think there’s a difference between delegating something because you just don’t *want* to do it and because it wouldn’t be a good use of your time.

      2. Anonymous*

        I see both sides of things here, and I think that an effective manager will figure out the way to strike a balance between delegating out the less valuable tasks, while still showing your reports that you are willing to do some of the hard work and get your hands dirty. In my position I tend to delegate a lot of the less fun, administrative tasks to my staff but I also try and step up in other ways to help them out e.g. If I’m planning on eating lunch at my desk I’ll offer to cover the phones during that time so that the admin assistant who usually covers them can have her lunch with the rest of the team. I am also the designated “spider catcher” in the office and my team is grateful enough for that that they don’t get too bothered by my passing other tasks on to them.

  4. Jeff*


    I read your article on Yahoo and I was compelled to write you. I have 15 years experience in putting people to work and you are wrong when it comes to 1 or 2 page resumes, especially if you are looking for a professional / technical position (IT, Engineering, Finance etc)! Think for a moment about a 1 page resume….everybody can have a 1 page resume, they all look the same! Thousands of 1 page resumes…who do you pick? How do you differentiate yourself? You go to a 2nd page and you write about your experiences. If you only have a 2 page resume and you are a highly experienced candidate (8+ years), how do I look different from a candidate with 4,5 or 6 years experience???? I go to a 3rd page….. possibly a 4th if you have a niche skill set. Clearly you come from an HR type background and you think you know all there is to hiring. All skill sets are not the same and one size does NOT fit all. When I think of all the components that make up HR, I know one stands out as the thing that most HR professionals know the least about and that is recruiting….because its not sexy and it is ignored. Do you really understand technology or engineering? You owe it to your followers to be more specific and less general as you are giving really bad advice.

    1. Anonymous*

      One terrible thing about blogs is that they attract commenters who make inflammatory, rude statements. You may not like AAM’s advice, Jeff, but that doesn’t make it bad. Also, if you had spent any time reading additional articles or other pieces on the blog, you would see that she is not from an HR background, nor does she encourage everyone to have a one page resume. That’s a little less fun that getting to call someone out on “giving really bad advice” though, I guess.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Um, I’m not in HR (which the bio at the end of the article you read makes clear, by the way). And I’ve said many times that resumes in IT tend to be longer.

      But yes, in general, good employers know how to differentiate candidates based on resumes that focus on the highlights of candidates’ achievements, and that doesn’t require five pages.

    3. JT*

      Jeff – your writing is pretty wordy and full of assumptions. It’s not surprising that you’d have trouble with brevity in a resume.

      1. Jeff*

        Did you read her article on Yahoo JT or Anon? Then put a lid on it and have a great day in the unemployment line. To anonymous…never mind. You don’t even have the courage to put down a fake name. BYW she did suggest (strongly to keep it to 2 pages …) “8. Extra pages. If you’re in your 20s, your resume should only be one page; there’s not enough experience to justify a second one. If you’re older, two pages are fine, but you go over that limit at your own peril. Hiring managers may spend only 20 or 30 seconds on your application initially, so extra pages are either ignored or they dilute the impact of the others. Your resume should be for highlights, not extensive detail.”

        This is bad advice.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You’re not helping your case by being rude to my commenters. You need to cut that out if you want to be part of a discussion here.

          (And by the way, this discussion doesn’t really belong here — this is a post on delegation. If you’d like to discuss the article I wrote on resumes, it’s several posts down.)

        2. Anonymous*

          Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I’ve been reading AAM for years, and she has always indicated that her positions and thoughts on things are not universal across the board. For most 20-somethings, a one page resume *is* all they need. In the three industries I’ve spent time hiring in, that has been the case as well. Also, your random hostility is unlikely to change any minds to promote what you feel is the correct way to compose resumes in your industry.

        3. JT*

          Even if it is generally bad advice and you are correct that IT requires lengthier resumes, the wordiness and false assumptions in your writing suggest that your resume is probably longer than necessary.

    4. Ariancita*

      Jeff, I’m curious. Are you a recruiter? You say you have 15 years experience putting people to work and you’re not in HR. If you’re a recruiter, are you industry specific (I’m thinking IT). Just wondering.

      1. Jeff*

        I’m a recruiter in the professional space. That would cover Sales, Marketing, A&F, Executive Search, Engineering and yes, IT.

        1. Ariancita*

          Ok, thanks for answering. I’m always interested in standards and expectations in different fields.

          Just a couple of notes: AAM’s advice is general and she acknowledges that. All her posts on Yahoo and other areas are duplicates of what’s posted here (and she’s also posted this resume advice on her FB page). I know she has always made caveats for different industries, so I don’t think you guys are actually disagreeing. (For instance, CVs in academia look very different.)

          And just generally, I know the tone in most places on the internet is typically aggressive, but if you explore this blog further, you’ll notice that comments here, for the most part, are very respectful and community minded. I don’t mean to speak for others, but I find it’s great to have comments from people who hire, recruit, and work in a variety of industries, and I look forward to any input you’d have. I’m sure you have great insights in your industry that would be valuable to other readers. But we do try to keep it informative, respectful, and often, lighthearted. I hope you can understand this.

          1. Alisha*

            Jeff, I appreciate that as a recruiter you know there are exceptions to resume-length rules. I write resumes for people in industry and appreciate using those rules as guidelines, but also use my best judgment when exceptions need to be made. Quick example: I had a person who was 26 and had just finished a masters degree (hence, a 1-pager typically) – but who also had extensive work experience, internships, and scientific publications in the field, and had run a photo/video business since age 16. For that candidate, I went to 1 and 2/3 pages.

            Ariancita is right on about tone…we’re a placid, respectful bunch here. I hope you’ll stick around, read more, and contribute thoughtful commentary in the comments because tech recruiting is a special field, and those of us who work in tech (in my case, trying to get back in) usually appreciate any new insights that could help us move forward. I think you’ll also find that Alison is an extraordinarily helpful and knowledgable manager and has consistently put forth an impressive breadth of thought leadership on this blog since 2007. While no one can expect that any advice applies 100 percent exactly to specific situations, there is definitely something for everyone here, whether you’re a new grad or a subject-matter expert with 30+ years’ experience.

  5. Eggs and bacon*

    There are ways and ways to disagree, and the particular way above is disagreeable and derailing. But getting back to the topic, in category no. 2 “delegating without truly delegating” I would add – withholding information but then doling it out during the project. This leads to what I call “hands-off micromanaging”:

    The boss seems to be delegating but does not fully explain what she has in mind, and the larger context, so that the person doing the job keeps finding out they did not think of this or that (when there would be no way for them to know all these things at their level).

    So they keep feeling like they’ve failed somehow, no matter what they have done (or whether they are good workers or not). It all ends up looking the same and makes people not want to take initiative, which of course the boss laments.

    I understand a boss doesn’t want to over share but you can’t keep everything so close to your chest that you don’t share anything and just dole out the minimum and expect people to do a good job.

    1. Jamie*

      This can be tricky on both sides. I have a penchant for explaining the whys and not just the hows when I’m training someone on a task to be delegated. I personally do better work when I understand the goal, so if others understand what the final result needs to be maybe they can come up with a better way of getting there. I’m all ears when it comes to doing things more efficiently.

      However, I’ve definitely worked with people that hate this. They don’t want to know the whys – just a list of tasks and steps to follow.

      FWIW it’s the people who are interested in the whys who invariably end up learning more and improving processes. There is a direct correlation between this and being first on the list when the more interesting and high visibility projects need to be delegated.

      1. Laura L*

        I’m glad that you do that, Jamie. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people ask me to do something or ask me to do it a certain way, but don’t explain why it needs to be done or be done that way.

        This always bugged me in school, too. And with my friends. And parents. And pretty much everyone.

        But I’m always happier if I know why, even if I disagree.

  6. Student*

    Back on topic, I’d love to see #5 cover the dreaded “delegating to a person without authority to perform the task.” There is nothing less fun than being told to manage your own co-workers without any official authority to back you up. This also covers asking someone with no purchasing authority to make purchases, training someone in a subject you’re not qualified for, or being asked to break rules/laws.

    1. Alisha*

      I dealt with the being asked to break the law issue earlier in my career, at a company I was only with for a year. I learned on AAM that it is legal to lower an employee’s hourly rate, but I was asked to lower it to below legal minimum wage, and felt trapped. That was the only job to date I did not leave on good terms, but it couldn’t be helped.

      I’d also be interested in hearing if anyone else has had to deal with a manager or a line employee who inappropriately delegates work to managers or employees who are not under that person’s domain. I used a PIP for the line employee, but when it’s a manager of another department flouting rules/etiquette, then it gets stickier.

      1. Jamie*

        It depends if the delegating to other manager’s reports is legitimate or not. Either way, I would think it’s easily solved with two short conversations. Manager to manager and manager to report.

        1. Manager tells other manager to communicate delegated duties to her first…so the report isn’t getting conflicting priorities.

        2. Manager tells report to let them know if someone asks them to do something outside of their wheelhouse…so if it continues to happen the manager revisits the first conversation – with perhaps firmer wording.

  7. V*

    I suppose this begins to get into issues of how the person doing the delegating is managed, but there is also such a thing as delegating too much. I’ve seen a few people delegate away almost their entire job and then “complain” about not having work to do. It’s extremely frustrating; the person simply doesn’t have enough responsibilities to fill 8 hours, but continues to delegate work that “should” fall under someone else’s job description (which they created). But again, that’s when their manager needs to step up. Most times they don’t, which is probably why this stuff is happening to begin with.

  8. Anon*

    Delegating work should take into account the employee’s schedule. I know a couple of payroll employees who have particular days of the week where the work is just ferocious to meet deadlines. One company just bought a new, small company. Higher-ups in HR got to decide on the day of the week the payroll would come in, and they wanted it to be the same day as everything else. They were surprised when the payroll worker asked to have the work come in on a slack day. (“But don’t you want to do it all at once?” was the supervisor’s question, ignoring the fact that the salaried payroll people were working 10 and 12 hour days on the payroll prep day.)

    I liked training people to do tasks and delegating the more routine work. I was open to different approaches to the work as long as it got done on deadline to a satisfactory standard.

    That worked well with the staff of five I had a newspaper until corporate started laying off people. I ended up getting all the work back over several years, and having to decide what to do and what to drop (and I could not drop all of it nor could I use technology to ease some tasks). In the end, I was working crazy hours in a salaried position without any staff at all.

    One of the problems with the tendency to lay off people (in many industries, not just in media jobs where revenue is cratering) is the disruption of delegation. At a family gathering recently, half a dozen people in various industries and government got into a conversation complaining about employers who decided to reduce or merge work forces in nonunion environments where decisions about retention ended up keeping (the wrong) people and assigning them to jobs they were not adept at while people who were competent at those tasks were told to leave their jobs.

    As companies thin out middle management, they don’t seem to take into account that there are tasks that are best delegated, and a structure needs to exist to allow such delegation. Layoff decisions that are thoughtless are just as bad as poor hiring decisions.

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