Success at Work : Delegation

Many people don't understand delegation. When they think of delegation, they think of the old slogan "*it always flows down hill". Proper delegation can make your team into a high performance machine. Poor delegation can result in mistakes, poor quality, and missed schedules. In this article, I'm going to reveal some powerful delegation techniques.

Most people think delegation always flows downward. An executive delegates a task to a manager, who delegates the task to a supervisor, who delegates the task to a worker. That is typically the way delegation flows, but powerful advantages can be gained when delegation flows sideways and upwards too.

Responsibility Flow

Although sometimes there are advantages to sideways and upwards delegation, responsibility always flows upwards. Let's say a worker makes a serious mistake and doesn't meet the schedule. Should the worker be fired?

The supervisor was given a task along with the authority and the resources (the department's workers) to get the task done. The supervisor's manager is not going accept the supervisor putting the blame on the employee. The supervisor should have been monitoring the task and taking action if it wasn't going right. Should the supervisor be fired?

The manager was given a task along with the authority and the resources (the manager's department) to get the task done. The executive who assigned the task is not going accept the manager putting the blame on the supervisor. A manager has the responsibility to make and break supervisors in their department. If the manager didn't select and train a supervisor they can rely on to get the job done, it's the managers fault. Should the manager be fired?

The executive in charge of the manager needs to explain to the CEO or President of the company that the job did not get done right. I think you're beginning to see the pattern. Although delegation usually flows downhill, responsibility always flows uphill.

That's not to say that an under performing employee can't get fired for making a mistake or failing to get work done on time. But somewhere up the chain of command someone should have taken action to get the task back on track before it became a problem.

When you delegate a task, someone else does the work, but you are still responsible for the results.

Downward Delegation

One of the biggest mistakes made with downward delegation is bypassing the chain of command. For example, a manager bypasses the supervisor and delegates a job directly to a worker. That manager has just made two mistakes.

The manager relieved the supervisor of all responsibility for that task and all other tasks, because a supervisor can't be held responsible if they can't control their resources. The manager also removed the supervisor's authority over the worker because the worker now feels they report directly to the manager, the same as the supervisor does.

If you are an executive or manager, never bypass the chain of command. This will destroy the effectiveness of your department, and since responsibility always flows uphill, you will be cutting your own throat.

Sideways Delegation

Let's say you are given a task and a part of this task requires a skill in which you are not proficient. You might choose to sideways delegate the task to a more proficient resource. Sometimes this is done officially via a multi-departmental project team. Sometimes a manager just asks the manager of another department to perform that part of the task. Even a worker may ask a co-worker to perform part of a task for them.

Sideways delegation can improve a company's performance if done properly. To be done properly, all parties involved must be informed of the delegation and the advantage to gained by the company from the sideways delegated task. Even when all these conditions are met, the original owner of the task remains responsible for the task.

Upwards Delegation

Let's say you are given a task and a part of this task requires authority above your level. You will be forced to upward delegate that part of the task. For example, your job is to order parts for a project. You select the parts and fill out the order form, but you don't have the signature authority to actually order the parts. You delegate the job of signing for the parts to your boss.

Sometimes it's necessary to upwards delegate. But even though you delegated the task to your boss, you remain responsible for the task. In other words, if your boss forgets to sign the order, that's your fault. It's your responsibility to keep checking with your boss to make sure the task is completed.

Sometimes a task is upwards delegated even though the individual doing the delegation is completely capable of doing the task themself. This is called "putting the monkey on the bosses back". If you're a manager or supervisor, you need to know how to recognize the monkey and toss it back to whom it belongs.

Choosing a Delegatee

You would assume that it would always be advantageous to delegate a task to the individual most qualified to perform the task. That is not always possible because the most qualified individual may already be carrying a full load of assignments. There are several reasons why it may be advantageous to delegate a task to an individual who is not the most qualified to perform the task.

Growth Delegation. If you always delegate a task to the individual most qualified to perform the task, you will not be expanding the competencies of your department. It's better to delegate a task to an individual that will be required to "stretch" a little to complete the task. If all tasks are delegated to individuals who are required to stretch a little to complete the task, the competency of the department will always be improving.

Fairness Delegation. Some tasks are boring and tedious, while others are interesting and challenging. If you always delegate the boring tasks to the same individuals and the interesting tasks to the same individuals, the moral and performance of the individuals always getting the boring tasks will decline. Tasks should be assigned so everyone gets a little good with the bad.

How to Delegate

Make sure the delegatee has the resources to complete the task; the tools, the time, and the authority.

Make sure the delegatee knows the task deadline. Make occasional checks to be sure the task is progressing. It's not uncommon for a delegatee to receive a higher priority assignment and not mention that they have stopped working on your task.

Describe in detail what the final result of the task should be.

It's not uncommon for an individual to accept a task without the faintest clue how to get started. Ask the delegatee what their first step will be to begin the task.

Leave as many of the details as to how to accomplish the task to the delegatee. Not everyone applies the sames skills and methods to accomplishing a task. Let the delegatee take ownership and you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.


Some people can work on the same thing for hours or days without getting bored. Other people will show a productivity drop after working on something for only a short time. The secret to keeping easily bored people productive is to let them multi-task. When they get bored working on one project they can jump to something different, eventually getting bored with the second task and returning to the first task. Being able to jump from one task to another keeps their overall productivity up.

To make this work, you have to let the worker in on the plan; otherwise, they will think you are loading them up with too many tasks. You must explain the relative priority of each task so they understand which task should get the most attention.

Many people don't understand delegation. Proper delegation can make your team into a high performance machine. Poor delegation can result in mistakes, poor quality, and missed schedules. Use the delegation techniques described in this article and watch your department's productivity soar.

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