Overcoming Barriers to Effective Delegation

Date: November 18, 2008

No other management practice receives as much verbal tribute and as little conscientious practice as delegation. Few managers will admit to weaknesses in this critical area; many firmly believe they delegate regularly. Yet many who believe they delegate well fall short of using this vital process to its full potential.

The principal reasons for failure to delegate include: a perceived lack of time; lack of confidence in employees; insecurity; workaholism; misconceptions about the true character of delegation; and one significant reason that overlaps all others: habit.

Perceived lack of time

A perceived lack of time is the most visible reason for failure to delegate. The manager becomes caught in a common contradiction, most aware of the need to delegate when the workload overwhelms. Delegation takes time to choose people, prepare them and get them started, but when the workload is heaviest, many managers don't have the time. You might promise yourself to do some serious delegating "as soon as the rush is over," but when the pressure goes away, so does the feeling of urgency that came with it.

To overcome the time problem, it's necessary to accept the fact that the time required to delegate properly is an investment on which the returns are not immediate; the delegation "time trap" must be overcome before improved efficiency is realized.

Lack of confidence in employees

Lack of confidence in employees is another common reason for delegation failure. The manager fears the employee can't do justice to the assignment or is simply afraid that the individual can't handle more responsibility. But the only way to learn whether the employee can handle it is to let the person try. It's necessary to take a chance. Mistakes will be made, but the manager who fears employees' mistakes should consider: Did I get where I am without making mistakes?


Insecurity on the part of the manager also causes delegation failure. Consciously or otherwise, the manager may fear competition from employees or the loss of recognition for task accomplishment. But the effective manager encourages employee growth, and a challenge taken up by an employee can look much like direct competition. In actuality, the presence of a couple of growth-oriented employees with their sights set on the manager's job can be a stimulus that keeps the manager sharp.

Workaholism is consistent with delegation failure. For reasons including insecurity, lack of confidence in employees and a perceived lack of time, the workaholic manager is the one likely to say, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

Misconceptions about the character of delegation

Misconceptions about the character of delegation also contribute to delegation failure. Delegation is not simply passing tasks off to employees to relieve the manager of work; this is "dumping," and it often involves tasks that the manager dislikes. Delegation can, in fact, relieve the manager of certain tasks, but delegation's true value lies in its implications for employee and management development. Employees learn and grow via delegation; most who are challenged cannot help but increase their value to themselves and the employer.

And the effect of delegation failure on the manager? The manager who fails to delegate can usually figure on going no higher in the company. In any well-run business, it's not the workaholics who get promoted. Rather, the managers who get promoted are the ones who have shown they can develop subordinates, and that they have capable backup ready to step up when called upon.


Overlying the foregoing, there's one major reason for the failure to delegate properly: habit. The key to improving delegation skill lies in the constant awareness of the need to overcome old habits. Start small, conscientiously applying the proper approach to one well-defined task or project at a time and doing this repeatedly until the new way becomes a habit strong enough to keep the old habit from returning.

What about that other term heard so frequently—empowerment? Is it any different from delegation? In many contexts, delegation and empowerment are synonymous; perceived differences exist because of years of misuse of delegation and the recent overuse of empowerment.

What happened to delegation was decades of misuse, regarding delegation as simply assigning a task to someone. But proper delegation has always consisted of giving an employee an assignment that presents a modest challenge, thoroughly preparing the employee in how it's done, specifying the desired outcome, providing the necessary authority and resources, and being available at those times when the employee genuinely needs advice or assistance.

The problem at the heart of most difficulties with delegation is a problem of management style. With many managers, it's a control issue; they can't let go sufficiently to allow delegation to work. But the key lies in letting go; employees who are never tried or tested will never grow.

Read Next: How to Delegate Effectively

Related Content: Resources | Management | Time Management

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