The Open Organization guide to delegation
Building your team's culture of shared responsibility
Effective leaders delegate—but open leaders use delegation as a tool for enhancing trust, collaboration, and adaptability.
Effective leaders delegate. Because healthy teams learn and grow when challenged with new tasks—and in order to take on new work without a change in staffing—teams must find ways to be more efficient and productive (or stop doing something that is no longer as important as it once was). If you're a manager or other leader in an open organization, you'll need help meeting all your strategic priorities. Delegating is a great way to get it.
But open leaders understand something additional: Delegation is also a way to empower those around you—to build, in other words, a culture of shared responsibility. Through our adaptability, then, delegation becomes all the more possible—indeed, almost inherently essential—for the organization to thrive and grow.
Our community has already explained a bit about how this works. Sam Knuth, for example, writes about the importance of truly delegating a task: Don't delegate temporarily, he says, only to take the task "back" if the person to whom you delegated doesn't do the work exactly as you envisioned. Earlier this year, Sam also gave us a great example of delegation: President Lincoln, who, in delegating work to Edward Stanton, used his authority to bestow not only work but the power to make future decisions concerning it.
To continue this important discussion about delegation, let's talk about how to choose what to delegate and how to select the person who receives the delegated work. We can also talk about reverse delegation (it's a thing) and how, as a leader, it's best to deflect reverse delegations.
The delegation calculation
Remember: At the heart of delegation is sharing responsibility. And the challenge that often makes delegation difficult is trust. If you cannot think of anything to delegate, perhaps you believe that you cannot trust your team members to share your responsibilities.
If you're interested in delegating more openly and effectively, try this: Identify one low-risk "thing" that you do, then begin delegating the work that it involves. If the person to whom you've delegating responsibility completely bombs, then you and your team will still be OK.
When someone fails, your response is crucial. To foster the idea that it's preferable to falter when handling a delegation because that's how we (as a team) learn, your first reply needs to be: "It's OK. Let's figure it out together." Provide cover while the team member assesses mistakes and offers remediation. As a leader, you need to listen in order to understand what you can learn from this situation. What didn't you know before that you are learning from this experience?
You don't have to tell team members that you've delegated projects or tasks that could fail without much consequence. Instead, utilize delegation as an opportunity to encourage curiosity and fearlessness. Think about the sports coach you had when you were younger: The great coaches teach us that successful teams play with a vigor that reminds observers of joy. This exuberance for playing and competing is exciting because you know, whatever the outcome, the team is having fun and learning. Teams that play simply to "not lose" have already lost. As the manager and leader who's delegating, you are a coach for your team. You're training the team to handle work that you previously handled. Teach them to handle the delegation with excitement and curiosity because you're all going to learn from the experience. You're learning how to be a better delegator and coach. The team is learning to lean in to new experiences and enjoy some risk.
The delegation refutation
Sharing responsibility means you'll personally have the capacity to take on new work. The team needs you to grow so the organization does not get stale. Remembering that you're delegating to give yourself bandwidth for new work is helpful when someone attempts to push work back onto your plate—to "reverse delegate."
In some cases, when you delegate, the person to whom you're delegating will declare that they're "at capacity," meaning that they cannot take one new work given their current workload. But don't let your teammates simply tell you they're "so busy" and move on. "Busy" is a relative term—and we're all "busy"! In this case, the team member in question might need your help prioritizing work, so you can use this valuable moment to offer counsel regarding prioritization. Remember that you're striving to create a culture of shared responsibility, which means you're not just attempting to "offload" work onto someone else but also trying to get your entire team to constantly assess priorities and learn to make difficult decisions about their work independently (I appreciate someone who is experienced and makes a judgement call about how to balance the work). As part of this, remind the team that adapting can be clumsy—that not being an expert means you'll all ask questions, check expectations, make progress, and then make some mistakes. Some people might refuse delegation, which means that they're refusing to adapt and share responsibilities.
Giving people a safe space to say "no" is something that you, as the manager and leader, need to support. By allowing people to say "no" "not yet," you're adapting and modeling the behaviors that you want to see. If you shut down and outright refuse to accept a "no," then you're going to get resentful teammates doing work because they have no other options. This type of behavior is a failure of leadership—and the team will need to go through some period of renewal if it is to recover.
The delegation prioritization
As you delegate work, you'll be helping team members make decisions regarding their priorities and understand how they might delegate work or stop work on a task altogether. When you approach a prioritization discussion with someone on your team, talk about the work the employee doesn't want to stop doing. You want to begin here because you need to know what your teammate will have difficulty letting go as change occurs during the delegation. As a leader, you have to motivate people to change. If you need the employee to stop doing the very thing that he or she loves doing (and finds great value in delivering), you need to speak to this concern. With some discussion, the team member should adapt and see the strategy behind what's motivating you to push for change.
As the hours and days pass, you'll have new work come in that likely needs an owner. You might alter the original delegation activity or add more items to delegate to others. Maintaining your team's culture of shared responsibility is paramount as everyone comes to terms with the truth that no one is clairvoyant and everyone simply learns as time passes.
Here's a checklist that you can use as you go through the prioritization exercise:
- State the work that is being delegating and seek confirmation that the delegation has been accepted.
- Inventory the work that the employee is tasked to complete.
- Ask the employee to give each work item a priority and deadline.
- Using your knowledge of the business strategy and customer commitments, collaborate to establish priorities.
- Put the priorities in writing, identify quality standards, and set deadlines.
- Set expectations regarding status updates, and confirm you both understand how the employee's current workload adapts with the new work and deadlines.
Through this process, check in with the person handling the delegation. Chances are that they'll have questions and need to seek clarification, but coming to you and asking for help can get tiring. When you check in, you make it easier for the person to leverage your experiences.
Throughout this exercise, understand that you're not doing the work; you're empowering another person to do the work. With any act of delegation, you're letting go. In that act of letting go, you have space to pick up whatever work requires your attention.