The best leaders encourage others to be leaders rather than followers. Leaders need to own the work and make decisions, but why is it so hard to truly delegate? There’s a big difference between delegation and assigning tasks to people.
Here’s the breakdown: Assigning a task is telling a subordinate to carry out specific steps or to follow a set of instructions. Carrying out an assignment requires little thinking. It also can be uninspiring, even disrespectful. Despite good intentions of skill building or increasing productivity, if you spend your time simply assigning tasks, your team may be thinking of you as a control freak or micromanager.
Delegating work means transferring control of the process. Carrying out a delegated task requires developing the “how” that produces the expected result. Your teammate will plan and problem-solve, make decisions, and manage the process. Delegation reinforces trust, builds leadership, and honors the teammate. When you delegate, your team feels your trust and experiences strong communication, and the shared vision grows.
Delegation is Shared Responsibility
Do you hear it? It’s that voice in your head that reminds you to ask for help and shouts about workload, capacity, and priorities. It’s that very same voice that whispers contrary messaging like “It’ll take longer to explain what to do than to do it myself” and “If I want it done right, I’ll have to do it myself” and even “I can’t ask someone else to do this because they’ll feel like I’m not carrying my share of the workload!” When you hear that voice, remind yourself that delegation done right can be a gift to your teammates.
Let’s discuss three keys for unlocking real delegation.
1. Focus on People
There are two approaches to considering your teammates for delegation. In the first case, you target existing strengths and delegate accordingly. That’s an approach where you keep people in their zones. There’s nothing wrong with that.
In the second case—this is where you can distinguish yourself as a leader—you look for opportunities to use delegation to grow your teammates’ skills and experience. This approach may require a little more time at first, but the result is more teammates with more skills.
If you want to level up, consider collecting a quick survey from your teammates where you invite them to tell you where they’d like to grow, what skills they wish to nurture, and what professional enrichment they are looking for from you. Even the highly tenured person whom you think you know well may offer you precious insight; at the least, they’ll appreciate your taking time to ask rather than feeling that you are making assumptions. People change over time, and educators are notorious learners themselves, making it quite possible that you have skills and experience within your team that you are not yet aware of.
2. Maintain Communication
Delegation can look and feel different based on the special combination of the work, the person, and the timing. Work that is less familiar to your teammate may be richly supported by some planned check-ins where you affirm the progress and provide reassurance.
Your communication should respect the teammate’s workload so that you share the work when they have enough time to do it well. Strong communication will shift mindsets from “This is not in my job description” to “I get to lead this!” Ultimately, communication should happen in both directions, where you invite clarifying questions and encourage dialogue.
3. Share Appreciation
In addition to growing skills within your team and getting a lot of work done, delegation gives you an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and acknowledge contributions. You’ll have specific, positive examples for performance feedback that allow your teammates to feel seen and heard. Your team is likely made up of people who appreciate different forms of recognition (a shout-out at a staff meeting, a message in a newsletter, a personal note), which gives you one more pathway to show attentiveness to their preferences.
Questions and Conversations are Necessary for Delegation
Consider these questions as you delegate tasks to your team:
- Am I clear about the outcome(s) I am expecting?
- Have I provided clarity about due dates and progress checks?
- Am I delegating to the right person and for the right reason?
- Does this work support their growth goals?
- What kind of authorization or resources might I need to provide?
- Is the delegation documented in writing so that everyone has a reference point?
Good teammates will have questions too! You can anticipate a conversation that includes these elements:
- Confirming understanding of the work
- Verifying the final deliverable and any interim updates
- Agreeing on how to get started
- Ensuring opportunities to gain additional clarity or confirmations
How True Delegation Works in Context
The following five mini-scenarios can help you work through discussions about delegation with your teammates and give you an understanding of how they can look, feel, and sound in your specific context.
In each case, make sure to consider delegation versus assignment, the available team/community members and your delegation strategy, and the first steps that you’ll take.
1. Your staff starts the school year with several days of professional development. In the past, you’ve designed, developed, and delivered all of it.
2. You have recurring reports that are required at the district level. The data sources are reasonably consistent, and the format has not changed.
3. Several department leads have approached you about introducing new curricula. The multiple content areas and varying timelines are complicated.
4. Recent employee satisfaction surveys suggest that morale is low, and engagement is waning. You’ve been asked to address employee satisfaction and present an action plan.
5. There has been increasing tension throughout the student body and multiple instances of unkindness. Despite existing rules and consequences, you recognize the need to address the climate and culture.
In these days of searching to “add capacity,” delegation is a great option. School leaders will always have a full workload, but with strong delegation, they’ll be able to put their talent to its best use, and their team will become stronger at the same time.