Delegation is a leadership must-have, as no organization can grow, or survive succession, without encouraging its leaders to delegate. Unfortunately, real delegation is often desired and seldom practiced. No matter your leadership level, practicing disciplined delegation is a critical success factor to allow you to learn, grow, and operate at your highest and best use, and scale your organization. For years, we have shared our sins of delegation framework so that leaders at all levels can evaluate where they may be limiting their delegation abilities, hampering growth, and impacting work/life balance, too.

Delegation Sin #1 -  The “Do It My Way” Syndrome.  Leaders often avoid delegation because they want things done their way. Great leaders realize that there are many paths to reach an end game and that being adamant about a certain approach can cause the adamant delegator to risk becoming a controlling bottleneck. Further, this “my way is the only way” approach can stifle organizational creativity, innovation, and motivation.  A better approach to delegation is to specify your intended outcome, and allow the new owner to devise the method or approach that they will use to achieve the result.

Delegation Sin #2 - Believing Our People Are Not Ready Yet.  Some leaders fail to delegate because they are concerned that their people do not yet have the skills to complete an assignment. We convince ourselves that our people are not ready, which may cause them to never develop the skills they need to grow and take on more. Instead, consider taking a risk and allowing your people to struggle and be challenged – perhaps even failing.  For many of us, struggle and failure have been our most powerful teachers.  Another approach is to take a task that is genuinely too much for someone and break it into smaller pieces that can be delegated to and achieved by that person. 

Delegation Sin #3  - Abdicating, Not Delegating. The flip side of the controlling approach in Sin #1 is the leader who dumps his or her work on others, often last minute and in emergency mode, not providing the support or time needed to ensure a successful outcome.  Instead, plan your delegation ahead and take the time to discuss the delegated responsibilities in detail with the new owner, allowing that person to ask all of his or her questions and encouraging them to circle back as needed for guidance as they proceed.

Delegation Sin #4 -  Not Providing Clarity or Specificity.  Leaders need to be clear on the expectations for each task they delegate – who owns it, what the expected outcome is, available budget and resources, the due date, and who should be communicated to on the outcome and by when. The best way to ensure the delegatee understands their assignment is to have them write a recap of the assignment, share it with the delegator, and, then, read it to confirm accurate expectations. All too often, we fail to make specific assignments, we allow people to share responsibility, we don’t specify time frames or results expected and then we are disappointed with the outcome. Poor us (not)!

Delegation Sin #5 -   Lack of Communication to Others.  The delegator should communicate with others involved with a client or project to let them know that specific responsibilities have been delegated and to whom.  This empowers the delegatee to own the assignment and makes it clear to others who will take the lead on responding, resetting expectations, and communicating the status.

Delegation Sin #6 -  Taking It Back.  Some leaders delegate responsibility and then, with the first sign of struggle or uncertainty, they take the responsibility or task back.  This can cause a variety of potential problems with the person to whom the task was delegated.  This “take it back” mistake trains our new owners to wave a white flag to be rescued by the delegator instead of digging in and making something work. In addition, it can demoralize the new owner, causing him or her to have feelings of failure. Or it can cause a breakdown in trust with the new owner never fully believing that he or she owns something because of a fear that it will be whisked away – and the delegator looms ready to whisk it back because of the lack of true ownership that the new owner displays.  Barring a significant performance deficiency with the new owner, the delegator must coach and guide their delegatee to problem solve and encourage them to commit the time and energy needed to be successful – without taking the task back themselves.

Delegation Sin #7 -   Not Establishing Clear Return and Report Processes.  Given the delegator is ultimately responsible for the completion of the assignment, they can develop varying levels of anxiety when they delegate. To ease this anxiety the delegator may continuously ping the delegatee for updates which distracts and frustrates the delegatee, and implies a level of distrust in their abilities. When a task is delegated, the delegator must be clear on their expectation for status reporting– including the frequency and timing of status reports and who should be included.  With multi-step or longer-term projects, a timeline with specific check-in meetings should be established. In the check-in meetings: discuss progress, review performance, reexamine priorities, and measure against the budget.  Encourage the new owner to adjust priorities, budget, and timing as necessary. This is not micro-managing. Through clear and consistent status reporting the delegator has an opportunity to answer questions and coach the delegatee on acting as the owner.

Delegation Sin #8 - Not Delegating to Remote Staff because of an Attachment to a 3-D Paradigm.  Some leaders feel that if they can’t see how the work is being done, perceive a person’s availability by seeing their workspace, or demonstrate how to do the work in person, then they cannot effectively delegate. More leaders need to leverage their whole team, not just those in the same geographic location who are willing to work in the office. Remote and blended work is here to stay and working at a distance is an expected workstyle for NextGen talent. By assigning work based on experience and skill versus physical location, people spend more time performing at their highest and best use which is rewarding for them and increases profitability for the firm. And establishing clear expectations for performance (see Sin #4), making good use of video, screen and file sharing platforms, and outlining specific response time and accessibility guidance will ensure your success.

Delegation Sin #9 - Fear of Overburdening Talent. An empathetic leader can fear that in peak work periods and times of overwhelm if they ask a team member to take on any additional assignments, the person will become demoralized and even quit. Instead, the leader overcommits themselves to do this work that should be delegated, resulting in no time to lead their team. Talent may perceive the leader as hoarding assignments for themselves and not giving them new opportunities, especially those that are motivated by growth and responsibility. Identify what motivates each of your team members individually, and check in with them regularly on their workload and desire for more instead of assuming you know they cannot take on more.  Assign a complexity rating to clients and projects. Then set goals with each team member on the pace that they will increase the complexity of their work to progress their career. And, don’t forget that great leaders are vulnerable. Approach your team members with the reality of the workload and ask who has the interest and capacity to participate in the projects you have.

Identify one of these nine delegation sins that most confronts you as a leader today.  Then, commit to begin improving and reap the rewards of a more empowered and capable organization tomorrow!

“The Seven Deadly Sins of Delegation” was originally written by Jennifer Wilson in 2010 and published in INSIDE Public Accounting's Consultant’s Forum. This article has been updated by Jennifer Wilson,  partner and co-founder, and Samantha Mansfield, senior consultant, at ConvergenceCoaching, LLC.