One of the hallmarks of an effective manager is the clear-eyed delegation of work. Managers entrust subordinates with carrying out tasks that the latter can handle. Before we can understand how to employ fruitful delegation techniques, we have to define what delegation is and explain why leaders do it. What’s in it for the manager, the delegate, and the organization? Answering that question will help us to understand how managers can be effective delegators and what skills they require to do so.

Delegating means that a manager assigns a task to a subordinate. These are more likely to be everyday tasks than strategic ones, but nothing prevents a manager from passing on an important responsibility to a subordinate. Delegates are expected to carry out the task on their own, or at least with a certain degree of autonomy, and report back to the manager periodically on their progress and upon completion. Further, there’s an element of trust or belief that the delegate is capable of carrying out the task satisfactorily in a timely manner. Managers lean on subordinates to represent their department well and to complete the task capably.

If the manager maintains close supervision of—and control over—the delegate, then the action may not amount to delegation. In such a scenario, the manager really does the heavy lifting himself or herself and uses the delegate as a mere limb that assists in the completion of the task.

One may argue that by merely creating a team of section-in-charges or departmental heads, the manager accomplishes the task of delegation. The CFO may have a treasury head, an accounting head, and a tax head reporting to her or him. Thus, she or he has entrusted the responsibilities for these areas to the respective heads already. So, is this the same as delegation?

The answer is no. Delegation is more task-oriented or activity-based and is often between individuals. For instance, the company may be negotiating a loan proposal with a bank, and the CFO may decide to prepare the three-year fund forecast for the proposal himself or herself, along with help from his or her executive assistant (EA).

Alternatively, CFOs may farm out this work to their EA and the treasury head’s deputy, asking them to do it jointly. The CFO and the treasury head may choose to focus on the critical task of negotiations with the bank and the strategic aspects of the loan deal instead.


One of the chief reasons that managers delegate is to pass on more mundane tasks to subordinates while they deal with more strategic issues. This way, managers make optimum use of their time, and the organization makes sure that their skills are deployed where and how they’re most needed.

This implicitly means that managers must be able to distinguish what’s more urgent and important for them to do personally and what other team members can handle on their own. It’s common to find managers who are unable to do this, which is often the biggest impediment in the path of effective delegation.

Even a well-meaning manager often enjoys getting her hands dirty with the nitty-gritty of a job. “Aha! This reminds me of those good old days when I used to operate this equipment myself,” exclaims the nostalgic manager as she rolls up her sleeves to operate it again—or fix a problem in it. Managers forget that they’ve risen through the ranks, and now the organization expects them to do more than operate equipment.

Delegation affords good opportunities for subordinates to learn by doing. What better school can there be than a tricky assignment handed down by the boss? What better way to impress the boss than to successfully complete the task and justify the manager’s trust? And what better way for the boss to distinguish the all-stars from the scrubs on the team than by delegating tricky tasks and testing team members’ ability to complete them to satisfaction?

Skilled delegation can aid management in spotting talent throughout the organization and succession planning. It’s common to find team members who can satisfactorily carry out their basic day-to-day tasks, but they may leave a lot to be desired when they’re handed a tricky assignment. How can team members be promoted to the next level unless they demonstrate an ability to handle next-level responsibilities? And how can managers test a team member’s state of preparedness for the next level unless they hand down responsibilities to that subordinate?


Managers can’t be present everywhere at all times. Moreover, it isn’t possible for them to be adept in all disciplines of work. On the contrary, there may be team members who are more familiar with a certain domain and who are therefore better able to handle issues in that area. This creates the ideal situation for delegation.

Skilled delegation requires managers to possess adequate understanding of the issues at hand, both in what they choose to handle personally and what they choose to delegate. The manager needs to know the importance and urgency of the issues involved, their immediate and future implications, their likely range of outcomes, the ability of the subordinate to step up to complete the task, contingencies, the need for supervision, and the modalities of control. Besides all of that, managers need presence of mind. They may not get a lot of time to make decisions while delegating.

Lastly, the manager must bear in mind an element of empowerment and authorization implicit in delegation. When managers pass on an email to the subordinate saying, “FYNA” (For Your Notice and Action), they imply that the latter is authorized to make decisions on the former’s behalf. The delegate isn’t a mere limb but rather an operative with a certain degree of autonomy based on trust.

In short, delegating requires managers to know both their team members and the requirements of the task at hand. It’s an act of adept matchmaking between team members’ abilities and the tasks to be completed.


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