Art of Delegating



Empowering people and teams is critical for organisations to gain competitive advantage and succeed. Smart delegating of responsibilities results in more engaged employees, better culture and improved overall productivity of a company. Knowledge and experience are shared among a larger group of employees which in turn increases organisation’s flexibility and agility. However, it’s easier said than done. Intelligent delegating is an art and it can’t be achieved overnight.

Micro-management trap

Most managers know that they have to delegate some of their tasks to the teams they oversee. The problem is that delegation can be implemented in many ways, and doing it wrong is counterproductive.

Many managers fear for losing a control, therefore, they don’t empower, but micro-manage. They assign tasks to employees, but stay too close to the details, break in on a regular basis and rarely accept final results without any “corrections”. As a result, a quality of work declines, because it’s impossible for employees to meet their manager’s expectations and people stop bothering with producing great results as they are going to be changed anyway.

Delegation is an investment. Employees have to be trusted and allowed to fail in a safe way to gain real experience. They need to be coached and it will take a bit of time and energy before they become competent. Delegation has to be carefully planned and level of responsibility has to be increased gradually.

How to delegate

Delegation is not binary – you don’t need to choose between delegating everything or nothing. Delegation depends on context, maturity of the team and individuals and significance of the decisions to be made. Responsibilities have to be delegated gradually, in a controlled way. You have to designate as much as possible to empower the team and let them build experience, but you also need to avoid introducing disarray and undesired side effects.

It has to be emphasized that to make a delegation work you have to define clear boundaries for the tasks assigned and employees have to understand the responsibilities they are assuming. Specific, well-specified goals and measurable key results may be very helpful, especially when the team is new to a type of actions being commissioned.

Any delegated task must be also followed by a delegation of authority (power, resources, etc.) required to get the job done. A level of authority should be set high enough to enable people gain experience, but not too high that things can easily run into chaos.

I suggested that micro-management has to be avoided, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t monitor the tasks you delegate. Don’t track the details and give employees a freedom to act, but don’t hesitate to share your concerns or take a corrective action when situation slips out of control.

Balancing authority and accountability

It’s vital to keep a healthy balance between accountability and authority. Lack of harmony may calmly lead to failures and, as a result, delegation itself can become an innocent victim.

If somebody is accountable for a successful completion of a delegated task but has no authority to make it happen, she can easily become a scapegoat to blame. She isn’t doomed to fail yet has very little influence on how things are happening. On the other hand, if somebody has wide powers, but no real accountability for the results, it may lead to misconduct and evaporation of trust and teamwork.


Below please find a simple exercise demonstrating that a lack of balance between authority and accountability may lead to behaviours we need to avoid. Steps:

  • Pick 4 strong guys who will be lifting a chair with a person sitting on it. They play a passive role here.
  • Pick 2 volunteers – let’s say A and B – who play main roles in the exercise.
  • A sits on a chair and B is asked to say how far the chair (with A sitting on it) should be lifted up in the air. In most cases B says that it should be lifted as high as possible, close to the room’s ceiling preferably. Everyone, except for A, has a lot of fun.
  • Once done it’s now B who is asked to sit on a chair that will be lifted up to the same high he previously requested for. Out of the sudden A is the only person smiling.

In the first scenario B has a lot of authority and no accountability (he wasn’t risking anything). The second case shows that lack of balance between authority and accountability leads to unacceptable behaviours. In the first case B isn’t personally risking anything therefore he is more inclined to gamble and potentially compromise a success of his colleagues. Long-term it will destroy trust and teamwork and influence overall organisation’s performance.

The 7 Levels of Delegation

As stated in Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 book there are 7 levels of delegation:

  1. Tell. You make a decision and communicate it to others.
  2. Sell. You make a decision and you explain your motivation to others.
  3. Consult. You make a decision based on a careful consideration of other’s opinions.
  4. Agree. You involve other in discussion and you make a decision together.
  5. Advise. Others make a decision after listening to your opinion.
  6. Inquire. Others make a decision and then share their motivations. to you.
  7. Delegate. You’re not involved at all.

The 7 levels of delegation can be used to define how responsibilities for some decision areas are delegated to individuals or teams (it helps to establish basic boundaries, levels of authority, etc.).

Delegation Board

A delegation board is a nice tool to visualise how different types of responsibilities are delegated to teams of individuals according to the 7 level of delegation.A delegation board can be used at many levels (team, department, etc.) and should be located in a place where everybody can see it. It supports setting boundaries and levels of authority and works as a powerful communication tool.

Further reading:

About the author


Head of Engineering, Agile Coach, PMP, PSM, SPS, PAL I, PAL-EBM

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By Piotr