Delegation Skills

See also: Negotiation Skills

One of the most important questions to answer if you want to delegate a task, whether at home or in the workplace, is ‘How much control do I want over the task?’.

The answer to this question will drive how you delegate the task, how often you meet with the person doing the work, and what level of detail you want to know about. It will also alter the leadership style that you adopt. What’s more, saying that you want one level of control when actually you want another, is likely to confuse your team and make them anxious and less effective, so it’s really important that you know what you want and communicate it clearly.

From No Control to Total Control

Think of control over the task as being shared in some way between ‘leader’, that is, the person delegating the work, and followers. The level of control can vary from the leader being in total control to the followers being in total control, with a whole spectrum of shared control in between. If the leader is in total control, the leadership style being used is likely to be Commanding  or Pacesetting. Shared control could be Authoritative/Visionary (the leader relies on the quality of their vision to bring their team along), Democratic, Coaching or Affiliative, all of which are very much linked to dialogue.

Total control lying with the followers is not often seen, because of the level of risk to the leader. It is more commonly described as Laissez-Faire leadership, which should give you some idea of the level of esteem in which it is not held by leadership gurus.

There is plenty of evidence from psychology that one of the most stressful conditions in work or life is lack of control.

Most of us can cope with most other problems, but lack of control leaves us unmotivated and even depressed. This explains why Commanding and Pacesetting leadership can’t be used for very long without profound effects on those around you. It also explains why Laissez-Faire leadership is not seen very often: it is very stressful for the leader!

Nine Levels of Delegation

With the level of control in mind, we can then move on to think about how you delegate work or tasks. Tim Brighouse, the former Schools Commissioner for London defined nine levels of delegation.

They are:

  1. Look into this problem. Give me all the facts. I will decide what to do.
  2. Let me know the options available with the pros and cons of each. I will decide what to select.
  3. Let me know the criteria for your recommendation, which alternatives you have identified and which one appears best to you with any risk identified. I will make the decision.
  4. Recommend a course of action for my approval.
  5. Let me know what you intend to do. Delay action until I approve.
  6. Let me know what you intend to do. Do it unless I say not to.
  7. Take action. Let me know what you did. Let me know how it turns out.
  8. Take action. Communicate with me only if the action is unsuccessful.
  9. Take action. No further communication with me is necessary.

It will immediately be apparent that there is huge potential for problems if you want to know exactly what is going on, but your subordinate has received the message that you don’t want any further information. Delegating work is obviously a lot more complicated than it looks at first sight.

Key Skills in Delegating Work

Delegating may be complicated, but there are actually only two principle skill areas needed for successful delegating:

  1. Be aware what level of control you want and need, which needs high levels of self-awareness. Good leaders are intrinsically self-aware, and understand how they like to work. See our page on Emotional Intelligence for some ideas about developing your self-awareness.

    The best leaders are also aware of how their subordinates like to work, and strive to find a balance between the two, to allow their subordinates to grow and develop in their work. You can find out how much control people like by asking them, and negotiating the level of delegation that you use with them so that both of you get some of what you want (and a win-win situation). See our pages on Negotiation Skills for more information.

  2. Make sure that you are absolutely clear with your subordinate what level of delegation you have used. This requires strong communication skills. You might find it helpful to look at some of our pages, including those on Interpersonal Communication Skills,  Verbal Communication Skills and Barriers to Successful Communication to support your skills development here.

Delegation is Not Just a Work Skill

The nine levels of delegation work with children too. For example, you might want your children to tidy their rooms.

In level one delegation, you say ‘Please go and have a look at your room. Come back and tell me how long you think it might take you to tidy it up, then I can decide whether you have time to do it before school.’ It doesn’t leave the child much room for manoeuvre, but nor does it give them much chance to develop their own skills or take control of their lives.

In level six delegation, you might say ‘Please go and have a look at your room, and come back and tell me when you think you might be able to tidy it. Once you’ve told me when you’re going to do it, I expect you to just get on and do it.’ You might need to remind them later, but you are reminding them about a commitment which they have made to you, rather than an order you gave them. They are partners in the task and its timing: the control is shared.

In level nine delegation, you might say ‘Your room really needs tidying and I don’t mind when you do it, but it has to be tidy by the time you go away at the weekend. Is that OK?’ You are putting a high degree of trust in your child to do as you ask. This level of delegation doesn’t really give you any option to say ‘Have you done it yet?’, because the answer is, not unreasonably, likely to be ‘You said you didn’t mind when I did it. Why are you nagging me?’.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Concise Guide to Leadership

The Concise Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

Like so many skills, delegation can be broken down into a relatively straightforward set of skills: in this case, communication and self-awareness. However, also like many others, it takes a fair bit of practice before you’re really comfortable.

To get better, it’s a good idea to practise consciously using different levels of delegation, so that you become familiar with the type of language needed for each, and are able to use them comfortably. You will then be able to flex your style to fit the task and the person to whom you are delegating.