Principles of Delegation

September 9, 2022

We all know that you cannot do everything. Nobody can do everything.

A good manager should know how to delegate. As a matter of fact, the principle should be to avoid being overwhelmed and being ineffective and inefficient, is to put a sign on your desk that says (let’s say that your first name is Michael), “Michael does only what Michael can do.” Which means, if somebody else can do it, Michael shouldn’t do it. Otherwise, if you are the best in everything, you will do everything yourself, and you will fail in everything. The idea is that you do only what only you can do—the tasks for which you are indispensable—and the rest should be delegated. 

Now, how do you effectively delegate? What often happens is that we delegate, and the task doesn't get done the way we wanted and then we get upset and we don't want to delegate anymore. We get disillusioned with the people we were delegating to. And we have a big problem. 

Effective delegation must have four imperatives. If any one of the imperatives is missing, then the delegation will be bad. It won’t work. You'll be disillusioned and you’ll be disappointed. 

So, what are the four imperatives of delegation? Let me explain. 

  1. The first imperative is to tell the person or persons you are delegating to what you expect them to do, and you must pick the right person for the job. 
  2. Next, you must tell and/or show them how to do it. How you expect it to be done.

The how is sometimes even more important than the what because you can undermine the entire task if it is badly implemented.

  1. The third imperative is to tell them by when you expect the task to be done, and who exactly is responsible to see that it gets done. 

Unless these points are spelled out it's not going to work. Why? Telling someone what you want them to do, but not how, and sending them off to implement it in the way they understand the task to be, is like telling a child to cook dinner but giving no further instructions. By the time they do it and you walk into the kitchen, you might very well say, “Oh my God! What did they do?” 

And the third imperative—by what time you want the task to be completed—is also very important. If you miss the right timing the whole effort may not have been worth it. Completing a task prematurely can be as bad as completing it too late. 

So, back to the first imperative. Who completes the task is extremely important. You don’t want to give it to the wrong person, an incapable person. In the wrong hands, the task or project or goal may not work out. You have to choose the right person to delegate to: someone who knows what to do and how to do it. But even this is not good enough, because they won’t know what to do until they know what not to do. 

How many times have you told someone to do something and then when it was done you said, “Oh my God. It’s terrible.”? 

So, you must tell them what to do, and how to do it, and by when, and what else? Remember, there is no end to human ignorance and stupidity. You may not even be able to imagine the ways in which a person might wrongly implement a task you have delegated to them. So, what must we do? This brings us to the fourth imperative:

  1. Monitor. You must monitor the person or people you delegate to, in order to keep the task on track. 

I am not talking about micromanagement. If you are going to micromanage, then you may as well do the task yourself. This is different. This is a learning process: the person you delegated to is learning what your expectations are and you are learning what their capabilities are. 

Eventually, if you delegate to the right person, you will find yourself spending less and less time explaining what not to do and how not to do it, and even by when to get it done. When you have a really good delegation process in place with the right person, all of the imperatives will already be understood, and the work will get done.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes