Delegation is the process of giving decision-making authority to lower-level employees. For the process to be successful, a worker must be able to obtain the resources and cooperation needed for successful completion of the delegated task. Empowerment of the workforce and task delegation are closely intertwined. Empowerment occurs when upper-level employees share power with lower-level employees. This involves providing the training, tools and management support that employees need to accomplish a task. Thus, an enabled worker has both the authority and the capability to accomplish the work. Although authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot-the person who delegates a task is ultimately responsible for its success. The assigned worker is therefore accountable for meeting the goals and objectives of the task.
Effective delegation can benefit the manager, the employee, and the organization. Perhaps the most important benefit for the company is a higher quality of work. Delegation can improve quality of work by allowing the employees who have direct knowledge of products and services to make decisions and complete tasks. Quality can also improve through enhanced employee motivation. Employees may do a better job because they feel a personal accountability for the outcome, even though responsibility ultimately rests with the individual who made the delegation. Motivation should also be enhanced as delegation enriches the worker's job by expanding the types of tasks that are involved in it.
Managers who delegate effectively also receive several personal benefits; most importantly, they have more time to do their own jobs when they assign tasks to others. Given the hectic nature of managerial work, time is a precious commodity. Effective delegation frees the manager to focus on managerial tasks such as planning and control. Managers also benefit from the development of subordinates' skills. With a more highly skilled workforce, they have more flexibility in making assignments and are more efficient decision makers. Managers who develop their workforce are also likely to have high personal power with their staff and to be highly valued by their organization.
Although delegation can provide benefits to the organization, many managers lack the motivation or knowledge to delegate effectively, and thus delegation (or lack of delegation) may be detrimental to the company. Managers' lack of motivation to delegate may be associated with a number of fallacies associated with delegations. Many managers believe that "if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." While this is at times untrue, because the ultimate responsibility for a task lies with the manager, this attitude often prevents delegation. Other reasons for a lack of motivation to delegate are lack of trust in subordinates, fear of being seen as lazy, reluctance to take risks, and fear of competition from subordinates. Some of these barriers are correctable through management training and development, but others may not be easily overcome. Mangers may also lack the competencies necessary to delegate effectively. They may choose the wrong tasks to delegate, the wrong subordinate to trust, or they may provide inadequate direction to the subordinate when delegating.
Improper delegation can cause a host of problems, primary of which is an incorrectly completed task, which may hurt the overall productivity of the organization. Additionally, the careers of the manager and subordinate may suffer. The manager is likely to take the blame for delegating the wrong task, delegating to the wrong person, or not providing proper guidance. The subordinate may also take the blame for doing the task incorrectly. Thus, poor delegation may detract from the personal success of managers and employees.
Delegation is not difficult. Anyone can give an assignment to someone. However, effective delegation (assigning a task to the correct person) is a highly skilled process that requires planning, thought, and managerial skill.
Two planning activities should be undertaken before delegating an assignment: defining success and assessing qualifications needed. Defining success requires a determination of what will constitute successful performance on the assigned task. An effective delegator assigns workers to tasks on which they have a high probability of succeeding. If a manager can't identify the successful outcome of a task, how can that manager determine if a worker is capable of performing it? The failure to define success turns delegation into a gamble, rather than a prediction. An effective delegator makes a prediction of success based on the match between job requirements and the worker's competencies. An ineffective delegator hopes that the worker will be successful but really has no basis for this hope, since success has not been defined. If success is well defined and communicated to the subordinate, the worker has a clear understanding of the task requirements and can focus his/her efforts on important activities. Similarly, clearly defining success helps the delegator coach the worker, which further enhances the probability of a positive outcome.
There are two components to defining success. The first is to define the successful outcome of the task, and the second is to determine the appropriate processes needed to complete the task. Both are needed in order to make an effective delegation. For example, a manager might be considering assigning a different salesperson to a particularly difficult client. Prior to making the delegation, the manager should reflect on the desired outcomes from this assignment (e.g., increased sales, decreased complaints) and the types of processes (e.g., better client education, greater empathy) that might be needed to produce the desired result. Only after understanding what is needed can a rational delegation be made. Thus, managers should first ask themselves: "How will I judge the success of this delegation and what do I expect someone to do to be successful?"
The second step in planning delegation involves determining subordinate capabilities. There is always a choice in delegation, both as to which subordinates to delegate the assignment to, and whether to delegate the assignment at all. To make either decision, the manager needs to assess subordinate's capabilities. In making the assessment, a manager should ask, "What has this worker done to make me feel he or she will be effective on this assignment?" Managers should also ask themselves, "How do I think this person will perform on this assignment and why do I feel this way?" A worker could be effective in obtaining desired results, but could use an unacceptable process to obtain the results that negates the positive outcomes. Managers are very unlikely to make an accurate prediction of success for an assignment when they have no basis for the prediction. Thus, the better a manager knows a worker's past behaviors and accomplishments, the greater the chance of an effective future delegation. Often, however, managers have to delegate assignments to people who lack the relevant training or experience. The general process still applies in this situation, although the specific questions change. Here, the manager should carefully consider, "How has this person performed on previous assignments where he or she lacked training or experience?" Again, there must be a basis for the delegation, or it becomes a wild guess.
The process of delegation is as critical as the planning, because a poor process can reduce the effectiveness of the delegation in several ways. First, it can lower the worker's motivation to perform the task. A qualified worker who is not motivated to complete the assignment is not likely to produce the desired results. Second, lack of proper communication of standards for the task may lead to less than desirable outcomes. Finally, the delegation process may create some artificial barriers or fail to eliminate others barriers to performance. The failure to share information and discuss real or perceived problems can reduce efficiency and may lead to failure. To avoid these obstacles, the following items should be considered when making an assignment.
Employees who accept their assignments are much more likely to be committed to their success. This acceptance is enhanced when employees have some say in the process. Thus, subordinates should be allowed to participate in determining when and how the delegated task will be accomplished and, when possible, what the assignment will be. At the most basic level, a manager can ask an employee if he or she is available to do a task, rather than telling him/her to do it. Participation can also increase supervisor/subordinate communication, which may minimize problems due to misunderstandings.
Many communication problems occur because of the failure to clearly consider and specify the performance standards of the assignment. Some of the things to consider include the limitations of a subordinate's tasks, (e.g., gathering information only, or making a decision), their expected level of performance, their deadlines for reporting, and the constraints under which they will be operating. Where subordinates are given a choice in accepting the assignment, these issues should be discussed and negotiated prior to the delegation. Even when subordinates do not have the option of rejecting the assignment, these issues should be clearly described and subordinates should be asked for their input.
A typical delegation error is to delegate work but avoid matching the responsibilities with the freedom to make decisions and the authority to implement them. This creates frustration, since the subordinate knows what needs to be done and how to do it, but is not given the opportunity to do it. Managers can avoid this problem by communicating to all individuals affected by the assignment that it has been delegated and who has the authority to complete the work. Managers can ask subordinates what resources they need for a task ad then empower them to secure those resources.
In addition to providing authority, managers should also provide adequate support for the delegated task. This might involve continually providing important information and feedback that are needed to accomplish the task. Finally, managers should publicly bestow credit when the task has been accomplished. This will enhance the subordinate's motivation and authority for future assignments. It also provides an important message to others that successful completion of tasks is acknowledged and rewarded.
Some managers delegate only when they are overworked or in a crisis. This can send a message to subordinates that they are being used since they only receive assignments when it benefits the manager. Ideally, delegation should benefit both the subordinate and the manager. Managers can send this message by delegating assignments that develop or stretch subordinates' talents and skills. Delegating to develop workers builds up a pool of talent for those inevitable crisis situations. It also enhances worker motivation and confidence since they acquire experience and benefit from the new or improved skills. Care should be taken to assure that the employee has the capability to succeed in the assignment. Employees should not be set up to fail. Certainly some failure will occur. Managers must recognize this and provide helpful, developmental feedback in those situations. Emphasis should be placed on the positive things that were done on the assignment and what actions could have been taken to overcome the problems.
Managers need to ensure that delegation isn't viewed as getting someone else to do their dirty work. Thus, an effective manager should delegate the pleasant and the unpleasant, the challenging and the boring assignments. Similarly, assignments should be balanced across workers. For example, it is quite common for managers to delegate the most unpleasant task to the best worker since that person can be counted on to do a good job. Alternatively, a poor worker may avoid receiving an unpleasant assignment due to the poor quality of the final product. This type of situation quickly sends the message to the productive worker that the way to get out of receiving unpleasant assignments is to lower the quality of his/her work. One way to avoid this problem is to give the productive worker other rewards and/or to increase the number of unpleasant assignments to the unproductive worker until the quality of the result improves.
Once the task has been delegated, managers need to allow subordinates the freedom to make the choices needed to accomplish the task. Managers should not supervise too closely for this may create frustration and make someone feel that the manager lacks confidence in their ability. Managers should review and evaluate the results of the assignment, not the means used to accomplish the task. However, managers are responsible for making sure that both the process and the outcome of the delegated task are consistent with the goals. As noted, one way to accomplish this is through the specification of clear standards prior to the delegation. The manager needs to remember these standards and intervene only when they have been violated. Managers should avoid the tendency to intervene simply due to style differences. One of the benefits of allowing subordinates to make their own choices is that this can be an important source of innovation for the organization. Sometimes employees really have a better way.
A particular assignment can be delegated to an individual or a group of individuals. Additionally, a manager may not wish to delegate the whole task, but to participate as a member of the team. What are the considerations in individual versus group delegation or even participation? Perhaps the most important point is that all of the previous issues apply. Prior to making the assignment, the manager must define success and assess the capabilities of the individual or group. In making the assignment, the individual or group should be allowed to participate as much as possible, authority and responsibilities should be balanced, standards should be specified and the manager should focus on results.
One difference between individual and group delegation is that individual behavior is typically easier to control and monitor. One alternative to delegating the assignment and giving entirely to a subordinate is for a manager to participate in the process as a group member. The downside of this approach is that it may send the group an unintended message of a lack of trust. Employees may feel that the manager is not there to contribute, but to check on the quality of their work. Thus, managers should carefully review their own capabilities as a team member and answer the question, "What do I add to this group to accomplish this task?" The answer to this question should be clearly communicated to the group so they understand why the manager has undertaken a role in the group. Finally, a manager should carefully assess the group's past behavior and have a reason for predicting that the group can accomplish the task. Again, this should be a prediction, not a gamble or wish for success.
Many employees have become skilled in delegating to their supervisors. Upward delegation occurs when an employee shifts his or her assignment to a manager at a level above. This is not always easy, but is best done when a person feels that he or she lacks the skill or direction for a particular project, but that the manager above has the capabilities to perform the task. Upward delegation may start by asking the manager questions or asking for advice in help in solving a particular problem. If the manager feels that the employee has too many questions or needs too much assistance, the manager may rescind the delegation and remove task from the employee. If employees are avoiding delegated duties by overwhelming the manager with requests for assistance, the manager can require that the employee have at least one proposed solution to every problem brought to the manager. Additionally, this situation can be improved by the manager asking questions, which lead the worker to think through and resolve a problem. Questions like, "What would you do next? What do you see as our options?" and, "What do you see as the best approach?" communicate the message that the employee is expected to take the initiative to at least attempt to solve the assignment.
A manager who uses effective delegation across time and assignments will be more efficient and have more time for true managerial work and will reap the benefits of employee empowerment at the same time. This will occur because success will be clearly defined and communicated to a worker who will be matched with jobs based on his or her capabilities. When done correctly, the process of delegation empowers workers and enhances their motivation and commitment.
Richard R. Camp
Revised by Marcia Simmering
Kreitner, Robert, and Angelo Kinicki. Organizational Behavior 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2004.
Malone, Thomas W. "Is Empowerment Just a Fad? Control Decision, Decision Making and IT." Sloan Management Review. 1997, 23–35.
Roebuck, Chris. Effective Delegation. New York: American Management Association, 1998.
Straub, Joseph T. The Agile Manager's Guide to Delegating Work. Bristol, VT: Velocity Business Publishing, 1998.