Delegation Is the Key to Leadership Success

Chess pieces illustrating leadership with one black to the right and a group of red to the left

If there’s one thing I’ve learned being an advisor to doctoral students and a manager of a team in an organization is that delegation is the key to leadership success. In order to maximize productivity and make the most of your follower’s talents, you have to relinquish control. By maintaining control, you are micro-managing and to do so make followers feel distrusted and stifled. This undermines their engagement and performance.

Delegation Is Good for Followers

Properly executed delegation makes the most of your human resources. It enables followers to figure out the best ways to get the job done, and it frees your time that can be used more productively. Self-Determination Theory tells us that there are three basic human needs, and delegation fulfills all three in your followers.

  • Autonomy. To delegate means you are allowing followers to perform the job as they see fit. This control over the job enhances feelings of autonomy.
  • Competence. When you delegate you are giving ownership of the job to the person. They are responsible for how the job gets done, and they can take pride in accomplishments that enhances feelings of competence.
  • Relatedness. When you delegate, you are sending a message that you trust and value the follower. This forms the basis for a good working relationship that can fulfill social needs.

Delegation Is the Key to Leadership Success

It is hard to relinquish control to followers. You are responsible for getting things done, so you want to be sure there are no screw ups and that everything is done as well as possible. Many times I have been tempted to ask followers to redo work a different way, or to just take over and do it myself. Unless we are talking about life-or-death cases, there are good reasons not to do that. There are four things to keep in mind.

  • Your way isn’t the only way. I know how I would do things, but I accept that followers can have their own way to do things too, and their way isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes their way is better than mine. If a follower can get the job done well, don’t second guess their approach. Focus on the outcome and not the process.
  • Do not be a perfectionist for others. It is impossible to be perfect all the time. Perfection doesn’t really exist. What matters is that your follower did a good job, not a perfect job. If you hold a perfection standard, both you and the follower will be frustrated.
  • You don’t have time to do everything. You have a staff because there is too much work for one person to do alone. Use that staff as effectively as you can, and that means delegating tasks to followers, and then giving them room to get them done. By doing so you maximize efficiency of your team, and you minimize your own stress.
  • Let your followers thrive. The best way for your team to develop and grow is for you to be clear about your expectations, and then allow people the freedom to meet them. Be sure to monitor progress and express appreciation for the efforts followers make. Let everyone know that you are there to help but let them come to you rather than imposing your help.

Delegation can be tricky because sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes they need corrective feedback. There can be a fine line between appropriate oversight and micromanaging. Negative feedback is most effective when focused on an outcome (“that report had some glaring errors”) and focused on future improvement rather than past mistakes. It also is about figuring out how to do better rather than trying to force a follower to adopt your approach. But with clear expectations, constructive feedback, and accountability for outcomes, delegation is the key to leadership success.

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