Delegate much? Odds are stacked against you

publication date: Feb 25, 2012
author/source: Janet Frood
I've been noticing a trend lately with a lot of my clients, especially those assuming new levels of responsibility or wanting to shift to working at a more strategic level. They have a really, REALLY hard time delegating. This is clearly a leader's edge.Janet Frood photo

Drive for excellence inhibits delegation

As I've worked with them I've noticed a few common themes and beliefs that are barriers to delegation.
  1. They all value excellence in performance; they have high standards of themselves and others.
  2. They pride themselves in delivering quality outcomes consistently.
  3. They don't want to overburden colleagues or direct reports who are overwhelmed.
  4. They develop mastery by hands-on application, so it's hard to let go of tasks that they are good at and enjoy.
  5. They find it hard to ask people to do things that they are capable of doing.
  6. They find it hard to trust others, especially when their credibility is on the line.
So it seems the odds are stacked really high against delegating. The result: leaders who are overwhelmed as they are taking on new responsibilities. An unintended result is employees who are neither fully empowered nor able to maximize their skills.

To help these clients shift their perspective and get unstuck, I've developed a few key steps together on how they can learn to delegate and be comfortable doing so.

Leaping the delegation hurdle

First I talk about what it will take for the leader to trust the staff they are delegating to. This is often a revealing and challenging conversation, as it becomes clear that the barrier to delegation is not the capabilities of others but rather their own fears of letting go. Once I identify factors that will help create trust in the delegation equation, I use that for the following stepped process.

Have a well-designed conversation with the person to whom you will be delegating. The purpose is to create good mutual understanding and agreements to assure that the project will achieve its goals. This process is called "designing the alliance" so that both parties understand clearly how the process will unfold. Both parties should declare what they need to be successful and how they will communicate through the project.

Make sure the staff person is willing to own the goals and be accountable for the outcomes. Sample design questions are
  • To really own this project, what do you need?
  • To be comfortable with the accountability for this project, what do you need?
Ask the staff person to develop a work plan and present it to you. Upon review, affirm elements that you find comfortable. Offer additional suggestions to assure that your expectations are also met. Use this as a teaching process and share your experience in similar situations.

Agree on how you will receive updates on the project, including frequency and method. Talk about why these updates are important; i.e. your need to be on top of project status in case others ask about it.

Design how you will support the staff person so he/she is fully empowered.
  • To be successful, what supports do you need from me through the process?
  • I am always available as a resource. How do you want to handle asking me for help?
Discuss how the staff person will handle things if the project goes off target or there are unanticipated challenges. Make sure you are clear on your needs in those situations; i.e., agree about no surprises or request proactive communication.
  • What will you do if the project is not on target or achieving goals? How will you inform me?
At the end of the project assignment close the loop. This is really important for both you and the staff person. Celebrate success and process the learning together.
  • What worked well?
  • What could have been different?
  • What did we learn about delegation?
  • What should we do differently next time?
I have huge compassion for leaders learning the art of delegation. Having a structured, intentional process for designing delegation agreements is a first, important step to more confidence releasing responsibility and accountability to others. With each success, it becomes easier to delegate and do so successfully.

I hope these tips will help you in your leadership journey. If you have any other delegation tips, please comment so others can benefit from your experience.

Janet Frood is the founder and CEO of Horizon Leadership Institute based in London, Ontario. She is an accomplished leader, a successful entrepreneur, and an internationally recognized executive, leadership and team coach. Her clientele of executives and change agents praise her as a peer confidante who eliminates the loneliness of leadership and inspires them to find their own leadership style based on their values, strengths and passions. Janet works with them to identify underlying stumbling blocks to success and discover new ways to address issues and opportunities.

Contact her at

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