Letting Go of Control: The Key to Successful Delegation

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

Delegation is probably one of the harder skills to learn as a new people leader. You were probably promoted because you’re the kind of person that gets things done. Not only do you care about the quality of your work, you also feel a strong sense of ownership. When things go wrong, you feel that in your soul.

Now, though, you’re being asked to let go of some of that control. You have a team reporting to you and you need to trust that team to deliver on results. The only problem is, you can’t do it. You still feel like you need to do everything yourself.

What’s happening there?

Why we struggle to let go

What if they do it wrong?

If you’re used to being better than most people at your job, you might worry that your team will get it wrong. You know that you can do it well yourself, so it may be difficult to hand it over to someone else. What if they don’t do it as well as you would? If things go wrong, you know that you will need to answer for the mistake.

The reality is, your team may not be quite as adept at the task as you are. They may still have some learning to do or they may never be quite as diligent and skilled as you. Other people may follow different steps to get the work done or skip some steps altogether.

For people used to being a top performer, this can be a very difficult pill to swallow.

The mindset shift

To shift your thinking on this, remember that people can’t learn to do something right if you never let them do it at all.

Take a moment and think about your process; really think about it. What is important to ensure the quality of the work and what do you just do because you prefer it? Which mistakes are recoverable and which aren’t?

For things that are important, you can provide training and create processes to support the person you delegate the work to do it correctly. For everything else, you can take a deep breath and let someone else find their own way. Remember, someone did that for you once upon a time.

It’s faster if I just do it myself.

Another thing I hear a lot is that it would just be faster for the leader to do it themselves.

They’re an expert in the task after all, so it is usually faster to just do the work rather than explain it to someone else. In the interests of efficiency, they just do it and move on.

The mindset shift

To shift your thinking on this, try to think long-term.

Sure, it may be faster to do the work yourself this one time, but what about the next 100 times? The next 1000?

Making an investment to train people in the tasks now can set you up to have a more competent team and give you more time to work on the important strategic tasks that are your job now. Don’t kneecap your future self just because you’re not willing to make a small upfront investment in your team.

How to decide what to delegate

Now that you know why you should delegate, you need to figure out what to delegate. You obviously can’t delegate everything on your plate, so you need some sort of a decision process to figure this out.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a great starting point for this decision. If you haven’t seen this tool before, it’s a simple 2×2 matrix that allows you to plot each task on your to-do list against its level of urgency and its importance. This should help you remove some items from your list.

I like to use an adapted version of this matrix. Instead of making a judgement of whether a task can be delegated at this stage, I simply consider whether a task should be done now, done later, or dropped. You may surprise yourself with the number of tasks you end up placing in the ‘don’t to it’ category.

Adapted Eisenhower matrix to help with delegation: plots tasks against importance level and urgency
Adapted Eisenhower Matrix

Once I know which tasks need to be done at all, then I can determine who is best suited to do it.

A good way to look at this is based on the repeatability of the task and its requirement for specialized skill or experience.

Decision matrix for delegation: requirement for specialized skills and repeatability
Decision Matrix For Delegation

In making this decision, we look at each task and determine if it’s repeatable or one-off.

Repeatable tasks should be delegated. I suggest considering this for tasks that require generally available skills as well as specialized ones. If it’s possible to train someone in the specialized skills, you will still get the long-term benefits since the task will need to be done multiple times in the future, even if it takes longer for that initial delegation.

One-off tasks probably need to stay with you most of the time. The exception is that if you believe that someone else in your team has the required skills, you can choose to delegate if the act of delegating it will take less time than the act of doing the task itself. Since it isn’t a task that will be done multiple times in the future, you don’t have the same trade-off of short-term effort for long-term gain.

A word of warning as you make these decisions: part of your decision-making process needs to consider if a task is a key component of your role. In some cases, the delegation of a task may appear to be a dereliction of duty, so you need to proceed with caution.

For example, it may save you time to delegate performance conversations to someone else, but that’s not going to help your team’s morale. Even if the matrices suggest you should delegate that task, it’s not a good idea.

How to delegate

Once you’ve decided what to delegate, you need to figure out how to delegate in a way that sets your team up for success. This is where leaders often go wrong and set themselves and their team up for frustration.

Decide who can do it

The first step is to find someone who is willing and able to do the task. If there isn’t someone with the skills on your team, you may need to train someone. Avoid trying to delegate to someone who has the skills, but not the willingness. This will set you up for frustration.

Plan time

Once you’ve picked who you’ll delegate to, make sure you plan time to teach them the task.

Depending on their level of ability, you will need more or less time. Ensure that you’re setting both of you up for success, though, by planning to train them far enough in advance of when the task needs to be completed. Put it in your calendars and be clear on the expected outcomes of the session.

Get clear

Before going to the planned meeting, ensure you’re really clear on the task. You can’t help your team member be clear on your expectations if you’re not sure what they are.

First, spend some time writing out the expected outcomes. What will you look at to determine whether the task was completed correctly?

Also consider any restrictions there are on how to do the task. Some of these will be mandatory, such as regulations, and others will be optional. Make sure you understand both and make it clear to the person you’re delegating to how much creative license they have in the matter.

Finally, clarify all deadlines, stakeholders, and your requirements for updates from your team member.

Tell, show, do

When you’re ready to show your team member how to do the task, set them up for success by following the tell, show, do sequence.

First, explain to them what they need to do. Then, show them how you do it, allowing them to ask you any questions along the way. Finally, let them try it with you watching. Ensure you’re providing appropriate feedback so that they can improve their process if needed before you hand it over completely.

Let go

Finally, let go. This is the toughest step, but once you’ve confirmed that the person knows how to do the task, it’s time to let go and let them do it.

You may want to include a review cycle so you can continue providing feedback, but ensure that it’s focused on results, not process. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you’re watching over their shoulder and correcting little variations in how they do the tasks. If they’re getting the work done effectively and operating within the restrictions you gave them, it shouldn’t matter that they’ve found different ways to do some things.

Delegation can feel hard, but it’s a critical aspect of leadership. When we try to do everything on our own, we only succeed in disempowering our team and overwhelming ourselves. By practicing this skill, though, you can increase the productivity and morale of your team.

If you’re struggling to let go and delegate more, book a free conversation to learn how coaching can help you develop your delegation skills or read more about the leadership coaching services I offer.

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