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The Secret to Effective Delegation

The problem is clarity (or lack thereof).

While most everyone in business would agree that delegation is critical to managerial success, how often are we dissatisfied with the results of what we’ve delegated? How often is the “product” that is returned to us not exactly what we’d hoped for? While this is sometimes the fault of the person of completing the assignment, it’s often the fault of the person giving the assignment. And there’s a common root to the problem.

One word, I believe, sums it up: clarity. (Or lack thereof.) While those executing an assignment have the responsibility to deliver a professional product, those making the assignment have the responsibility to ensure that the assignment is, as an old editor of mine used to put it, “clear as a mountain crick.”

Let’s dissect delegation. Following are four common areas where it can go astray.

Clarity of objective – What exactly is it that needs to be done? Is an assignment as clear as it ought to be? Take an imaginary example: An executive (likely distracted, edgy, harassed by too much to do in too little time) calls you and says, “I need a quick competitive analysis of Barking Dogs of America. The board’s expressed an interest in it and so has Schnauzer (your CEO). High priority. Gotta run to a meeting now, but I want you and Beagle to handle this. I know I can count on you both – trust me, there’s a lot of interest in this one!” (FYI, Barking Dogs is a key rival that has been gaining market share at an alarming rate.) How will you respond to this phone call and assignment? Probably a fair amount of the time, taken off-guard yourself and slightly disturbed by the urgency and impatience in your boss’s voice, your answer will be something along the lines of a jaunty, “Sure, no problem – you can count on us. Beagle and I are on it!” But what exactly is it you and Beagle are on? Does your boss want a paragraph? A page? Slides? A 20-page report? And analysis of what? Sales? Earnings? Market share? Distribution? Advertising? All of the above? Who knows? All you really know is that the project is important and your boss is anxious.

Clarity of responsibility – I can’t tell you how many times in my corporate career I was given assignments for “me and Beagle” to handle. Or worse still, “me and Beagle and Spaniel,” three trusted lieutenants. Even if you and Beagle and Spaniel are all very capable, which no doubt you are, whose assignment is it? Who does what to whom? Without a clear project lead, what you’ve mostly been handed is a recipe for confusion.

Clarity of time – Let’s return to our hypothetical canines. The request was for a “quick competitive analysis.” Well, how quick is quick? Could it be a day? Maybe. A week? Possibly? Two weeks? Conceivable – a competitive analysis can get pretty meaty. What both you and your boss most want to avoid is a phone call just, say, three hours later with your boss barking, “Where’s that competitive analysis? I’m meeting Schnauzer in 10 minutes!” (When you were planning to meet Beagle over coffee first thing tomorrow morning to discuss how you’d approach the project…)

Clarity of communication – So often what is intended to be communicated by one person is not actually what is perceived by the other. So often projects (and relationships, for that matter) founder on the shoals of faulty communication. How to prevent such delegation-related problems from occurring? From management’s perspective, a key element is to make sure there’s ample time when a substantive assignment is given (no harried phone calls from remote airports, please), and to follow a clear assignment with a message like:

“If there’s anything at all you don’t understand about this Barking Dog project, just let me know. I don’t mind at all. I’d much rather you check in with me now if I’m at all unclear… or at any point in the project, preferably earlier than later, if you need more direction.

“No question is a bad question – just ask.”

There’s no guarantee you’ll end up precisely with what you want, but you can improve the odds.

This article first appeared at

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