Article: The art of effective delegation

Employee Relations

The art of effective delegation

Delegation is one of the most primitive pre-requisite qualities of managers. Yet many managers fail to do it effectively and end up costing the team and the business. We take a look at the art of effective delegation in this article.
The art of effective delegation

Arpita was really happy at work lately. She had just been recognized for the hard work she had put for a year. Recently promoted, she had been given her first managerial stint, to lead a team of 12. She could not completely enjoy the feeling of elation till it lasted – and it didn’t last long. There is now a lot of work that has to be delivered that she is accountable for, and other requests keep coming in on a daily basis. In hindsight, the team members already have their hands full – she just cannot decide who has some space to accommodate and whose are already overflowing. With the deadline staring at her face, Arpita picks most of the work herself from the team members doing it, offloads some of it to the high performers on the team. Her lack of effective decision-making and delegation ends up unbalancing the division of labour, upsetting the team members, draining them both physically and mentally – and worse of all, botching up the project.

Everyone who has ever been a manager has been in Arpita’s shoes at some point in their career – there are many who come across her situation even after accumulating several years of experience in managing teams. The premise of management is built on the ethos of delegation – passing responsibility and ownership of an activity to an individual. There are not a lot who can perform this basic management task effectively though. 

Delegating work to associates increased the earnings of an average partner in a law firm more than 20% compared to what they would make without delegating. Top partners had an upshot of atleast 50% in their earnings.

The case for effective delegation

How valuable is delegation? Valuable enough to directly increase your revenue

To quantify the impact of effective delegation to a business, Thomas N. Hubbard and Luis Garicano conducted a study in the law profession. They collected data of the earnings of the partners, the number of associates who work with the partners, and the cost of those associates to the law firm. After ingesting this data in their economic model, the researchers found that delegating work to associates increased the earnings of a median partner more than 20% compared to what they would make without delegating. Top partners had an upshot of atleast 50% in their earnings – all owed to delegating work to associates. 

The value of effective delegation having been underscored in currency terms, it is important to note that one of the most important aspects of managing teams is found hard to achieve by a lot of managers – and at different stages of their career. There are a few ubiquitous constraints on the path to effective delegation. Here are the roadblocks explained which managers should be cognizant of, and avoid stumbling on them.

Over-reliance on the usual suspects

It is basic human psychology to fall back on their trusted few in times of distress. The same psychology is at ploy at the workplace – the manager will rely on his confidants, his usual suspects, for bailing the team out whenever a work-tsunami strikes the team. Except this isn’t a discussion in the middle of the night about your mid-life crisis with your confidant – however this bad management may result in your poor management skills being discussed by one of the usual suspects with somebody at the same hour. Over-reliance on a few people ends up the favoured few over-working and eventually burning out. This creates an imbalance in the work allocated to all – the more capable ones get more work, the less capable ones are relieved from it. And more often than not, managers end up making a donkey of their horse.

Fear of losing power and control

Those who climb up in the career ladder, are the people (well, mostly!) who have done quality work and performed to the highest of standards. Giving up control and having to see someone else do it less effectively and efficiently gives birth to this impulse of shrugging that ‘someone else’ aside and doing it on your own. Trusting somebody to do what you have been doing, and doing so well that it became the basis of your promotion, is never easy – but this was equally new to you when you started, and some manager entrusted you to do that work, and it was that opportunity that made you master that art. Be eager to lose control, and empower others. And while others are engaged in doing the tasks you had perfected, you can spend time on strategy, ideation, exploring business opportunities, and helping your team members perfect the tasks.

Over-reliance on the usual suspects in the team creates an imbalance in the work allocated to all – the more capable ones get more work, the less capable ones are relieved from it. The managers end up making their horse a donkey


Failure to completely let go is a cause and micromanaging is the effect. Some managers find it hard to let go completely of a task. Managers who are able to delegate work despite finding it hard to let go, end up being involved and hand-hold the team members for every aspect of every task they are occupied with. Micromanagement ends up wasting time of both the manager and the reportee – the manager is knee-deep into the reportee’s work and ignoring the tasks he could do by delegating work; the reportee has to update the manager on the slightest of progress in work. Such an arrangement becomes counter-intuitive and makes the activity of delegation rudimentary. 

Recognize for a job well done, coach for a job riddled with errors.

Sharing accountability

A reason behind managers’ reluctance to delegate work is because they are held accountable for the delivery of work. And letting go means putting your reputation at work in your team member’s hand. While accountability for successes is shared, it is mostly the manager who is held accountable for the failures. What is important for young managers to learn is holding people accountable for their work teaches the latter the value of ownership. Recognize for a job well done, coach for a job riddled with errors. Giving people accountability is a way of helping them really grow. 

However, the practice of giving accountability takes a downturn when reportees are held accountable by the manager when the intended objective of the latter is to save himself and escape the firing line. This ill practice is counter-intuitive and giving accountability must not be mistaken for throwing people under the bus for the mistakes the managers have made. Hold people accountable, but within the team. Make people answerable for their mistakes, but to the manager. Give people complete ownership of their work, but also give them a safety net and room for making mistakes. Take accountability of their errors, and give them confidence that you have their back. Hold them accountable for all the achievements, and show them their work is valued.

Arpita learnt this the hard way – after 2 mediocre projects, 19 sleepless nights and 4 harsh upward feedback forms from her reportees. Arpita still wonders if some coaching on the basic managerial activity of delegation may have helped avoid such a situation. Do you wonder the same?

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Topics: Employee Relations

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