Management Skills

How to delegate effectively as a manager

15 min read

Delegating isn't about telling your team what to do. It’s about empowering them to take ownership. In this article, Michaela Mendes, Director of Global Content at Globalization Partners, reviews the do’s and don’ts of effective delegation.

Managers, you can’t do everything alone. 📢 While it can seem difficult to let go of tasks and projects you once owned and executed, learning how to delegate is an important part of being a good manager and working as a high-performing team. Michaela Mendes, Director of Global Content at Globalization Partners, tells us about how she learned to delegate and tips for delegating effectively.

Like most, I started my career as an individual contributor. But, within two years, I built my team to be 10 people — all over the world. As the team grew, so did our goals, and so did our workload. 

But despite having a bigger team, work became a lot harder before it became easier. 

Why? One of the biggest challenges I faced had nothing to do with my team, time zones, communication, or collaboration. It had everything to do with me. 

With every person I added to the team, it seemed like I created exponentially more work for myself. I had more people but less breathing room – because everything still flowed through me. 

Delegating sounds easy. It seems like every leader knows how to do this. So why couldn’t I? 

Failure to understand delegation, how to do it, and why it’s essential can derail would-be leaders, even if they have the best intentions.

 Here’s what I learned about delegation, how to sharpen delegation skills, and how my entire outlook on managing changed as I learned how to delegate more effectively. 

What does it really mean to delegate? 

Delegation isn’t offloading your work, it’s giving other people ownership of the outcome.  When you delegate authentically, you’re giving someone else authority over the project to be done. 

Instead of saying, “Here’s how to do this task – go do it the same way I would because I don’t have enough time,” you’re saying, “Here’s the result we’re aiming for. I’m here to help if you need me, but I trust you to take us there.”

You’re defining the problem and letting your employee define the solution. 

It can feel scary to let go of ownership over a project, but to delegate effectively is to do just that. Empowering your employees to own the solution will result in higher productivity, more employee engagement and an overall culture of accountability.

The 3 biggest delegation downfalls 

What are the signs of bad delegation?

Here are some of the missteps – and what you can do to course-correct: 

1. Creating bottlenecks 

When you teach your team to do some of the work, but not enough to cross the finish line, you’ve created a bottleneck. 

Bottlenecks are specific points in a production line where too many requests are flowing through one person or checkpoint at once. This creates a backlog of items to be processed. It slows down every other point in the process, making it difficult for other working parts of the production line to function as they should. 

Signs of a bottleneck: 

  • You have a very long list of requests from your team and you’re finding it difficult to stay caught up. But, once you go through each request, you see that most are solved with a simple yes or no.
  • You’re always the one to finish a project or task or finally say it’s complete. You’re closing the loop and tying up loose ends – as opposed to your team member who began the process and did most of the work. 
  • You may be starting to sense frustration from your team because their projects aren’t getting completed in a timely manner. 

How to avoid it:

While someone is onboarding and learning, bottlenecks are to be expected. But once your new employee is up and running, you shouldn’t be the sole obstacle in the way of a completed project. This is sure to result in a major loss in potential production, and eventually a loss of morale. 

To avoid being a bottleneck, think carefully about where you’re most helpful and where you want to provide input – and communicate it with your team. Establishing clear roles on the team will help promote a culture of accountability and also give you peace of mind that your team’s clear on when to ask you for input and when to go ahead.

Remember though, if you set too many checkpoints and bottlenecks will arise.

You should also examine what you’ve trained your team to do – and not do. How can you equip them better to own the entire process end to end? 

2. Micromanaging 

Micromanaging is exactly what it sounds like – a manager who focuses too closely on the little details. 

This is a problem for many reasons, the top being – your smothering your team and no one wants to be smothered. In fact, it’s one of the manager behaviors direct reports dislike most.

What’s the root cause of micromanagement? 

While perfectionism may play a role, in reality, lack of trust and fear are often the primary drivers. Fear of letting go, fear of not knowing everything that’s happening, and maybe even personal insecurity about your role in the work.

Signs of micromanagement: 

  • No decision can be made without your input. 
  • You’re asking your team to update you – constantly – about even little changes or movement in a project status. 
  • Your team spends more time explaining to you what they’re doing and why than actually doing the work. 

How to avoid it: 

It’s important to understand that you’re not essential for each and every process and decision. If you feel like you are, it’s time to take a step back and put more trust in your team. On a remote team, this can feel especially challenging.

Spend some time building trust with your team. A great way to do this is through one-on-ones. Consistent one-on-ones are a powerful tool for managers to build rapport and a foundation of trust with their employees.

One-on-ones are also a great time to ask your team members how they prefer to be supported. Since micromanaging can look different to different people, understanding how your direct reports like to be managed will go a long way in avoiding micromanagement. For example, do they prefer an unplanned, casual check-in? Would they appreciate more hands-on help? Everyone’s different.

Communication can solve a lot. Don’t be afraid to ask your team about their management preferences, and continue to touch base on what’s working and what’s not.

3. Playing hero

Maybe you don’t micromanage, but whenever your team has a question or needs help, you swoop in to fix everything (or at least this is what you think you’re doing). 

What your team really needs is you to just answer their question or provide some guidance, then back away and let them continue figuring things out for themselves. Or, maybe they just need to talk it out. They likely already have the answer, but need to be challenged to find it.

When your team member asks you a question or needs your help, you shouldn’t take this as a confirmation that you need to be more involved. It’s not the time to jump in and take over.

Signs you’re playing hero: 

  • You’re creating a culture of dependency. No one else in the company knows what your team members are good at, because you’re the face of everything. You do it all. 
  • Team members don’t come to you for help unless they want you to take over and finish the project or task for them. This creates an environment where some people never turn to you for help, and some people always do. 

How to avoid it: 

When you’re an individual contributor, you may demonstrate your passion and work ethic by jumping in to help when your team members need it, going above and beyond, and doing just a little bit more than someone may expect. 

When you’re a team leader, on the other hand, success is measured differently. It’s no longer about how hard you work and how much time you give. It’s about your people. As a manager, delegation is a tactic for you to help them shine. 

Are you giving your team members a clear path to grow independently in their roles? Do other people in the company know what your team members do and are good at? Remember, their wins are also your wins. When people can see that your team is thriving, it reflects favourably on everyone. 

5 effective delegation techniques to set your team up for success

It’s clear from the downfalls that you need to give your team some independence and create a culture of trust if you’re going to be an effective delegator. Now the question is, how? Avoiding a lot of these mistakes is easier said than done.

Here are five tips to help improve how you delegate to your team.

1. Be selfless 

This may seem counterintuitive, but failing to delegate is selfish behavior. You’re not being a hero by hoarding all the work. By delegating and giving ownership to your employees, you’re helping your team members build their resume, learn new things, and hopefully find more satisfaction in their careers. 

When you fail to delegate, you’re removing opportunities instead of creating them. 

👉 Put it in action: Think about a great leader you’ve had who gave you an opportunity. How did they behave? What did they do that made you feel trusted?

2. Document what’s important

Your team members can’t read your mind! If you delegate something and your team doesn’t have the information needed to get it done, that’s on you, not them. Write down the process you want them to follow, and give them clear instructions and resources. 

Documentation is even more important in remote work environments, where face-to-face interactions are at a minimum and asynchronous communication is the norm.

👉 Put it in action: Does your team have a knowledge base or a documented process they can reference to help them gain independence and increase their ownership of projects? Try a tool like Helpjuice or Notion to create and store collaborative knowledge documents. 

3. Know where you fit

If you’re not delegating, you’re doing too much. That means you’re not clear on your own priorities. So much of good leadership is knowing your own strengths, weaknesses, and capacity. 

It may be time for a mental reset on what you personally can and should do every day to make an impact. Whatever is leftover: delegate.

👉 Put it in action: Do you have an accountability framework in place? A framework like RACI helps establish everyone’s priorities and responsibilities from the start of a project so you’re not taking on more than you need to and your team is crystal clear on what they’re responsible for.

4. Invest time upfront

Spend the right amount of time training your team on best practices, why you do things a certain way, lessons learned, and actionable strategies they can apply to their work. 

People don’t like managers who tell them what to do and how to do it “just because.” People appreciate managers who provide principles and guardrails based on their learnings from actually doing the work. 

👉  Put it in action: Set up a coaching workshop for your team on one specific type of repeatable task that many of them are required to complete. This will give them the opportunity to share their own knowledge and ask you and each other questions. You’ll likely learn something too!

5. Design learning environments

People are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. Mistakes create an opportunity for learning. What matters is that as a manager, you’re creating an environment where your team has room to make mistakes while they learn, and these mistakes won’t jeopardize the entire project.  

Author Robert Glazer calls this “allowing above the waterline mistakes.” 

Damage to a ship that happens above the waterline won’t cause it to sink – it’s repairable. Damage below the waterline is much more dangerous. Managers can help reduce below-the-waterline mistakes and keep the ship afloat as their team members develop and grow. 

👉  Put it in action: How did you respond the last time a team member made a mistake? How did you help the individual see what he or she could have done differently and promote accountability? Holding retro meetings is a great way to reflect on learnings from your previous sprint and address how to course correct moving forward. 

How to delegate to your peers 

Effective delegation isn’t always between managers and employees – oftentimes delegation is required to work effectively laterally. 

Maybe you and your peers are assigned to a project and you need to delegate certain tasks to help move forward. How do you delegate effectively when the dynamics are different, without making your peers feel like you’re taking over? 

Lateral delegation should always be a collaboration. Here are three quick tips on how to approach it: 

🎯 Align behind shared goals. 

Make sure you all have the same understanding of what the finished product should look like. Ensuring that you’re aligned on the end goal will help avoid conflict as you work together to reach that goal. 

If you’re setting the goals together, there are many different goal-setting frameworks to consider. One commonly used one is OKRs — objectives and key results. The “objective” part looks at the higher-level goal, while key results help you understand if you’re there. They’re measurable indicators of success for the parent objective.

OKR example in Hypercontext
Check out Hypercontext’s library of goal and OKR examples

👂🏾Discuss different approaches – and listen.

Establish a clear, open line of communication on the “how.”

Your peers will have their own perception of who should be involved and who should take on what responsibility. Listen to their perspectives. Even if you’re the project lead, everyone should have a chance to provide input. 

One thing to establish from the start: how do your peers prefer to communicate? Since you all work on different teams, you could be accustomed to different communication modes and styles. Having a project kickoff meeting is a good way to establish how to work together moving forward and give everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts.

Ask, don’t tell.

When delegating to team members who report to you, they expect you to guide them towards what they need to do. It’s less clear when working with peers. 

Consider reframing from a statement to a question. For example, change from “Please work on this” to “Can you support on this?”

This creates an environment of collaboration and allows the opportunity for buy-in.

A people-first mindset is key to effective delegation

Struggling to delegate could mean you have a task-first mindset. You’re highly focused on the job to be done, and the quality of the final output – not much else. In some ways, you may feel the quality of the work reflects on you, so it’s hard to hand ownership to anyone else. 

Effective delegation comes with a people-first mindset. You’re most mindful of the team members doing the work, and every task is a chance for them to learn and grow. 

With a people-first mindset, you realize it’s not about you at all. It’s about the sum total of what you can accomplish together, and the journey towards “done” as a team. 

Michaela Mendes

Michaela Mendes is the Director of Global Content at Globalization Partners, a platform that allows companies to compliantly hire, onboard, and manage the best talent – anywhere in the world. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.