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13 Warning Signs that What You’ve Delegated Won’t Get Done (And How to Fix Them)

Yes, you know you’re doing too much.

Way too much!

And, yes, you know you need to give things to other people to do. But you’ve tried delegating, and it doesn’t work.

The last time you delegated something to someone, the whole project blew up in your face, and you ended up doing it yourself.

Not fun.

I can hear you saying now, “Give me something I can use!”


But consider this. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not delegation that doesn’t work, but the way you delegate that doesn’t work. Read through the 13 warning signs below and see if you find yourself in any (most?) of them.1. You delegate too much at one time

For many of the clients I work with, delegation is only attempted when they’ve become completely and utterly overwhelmed. As a result, the things they give others to do are delivered in rapid fire succession, like a drive-by shooting.

The problem is, like a drive-by shooting, an employee doesn’t feel empowered to act, but assaulted with a list of things to do that gets added to their already long list. And your delegated tasks go to the bottom of that list, not likely to get done any time soon.

The solution to this problem is being strategic with your delegation. Planning ahead and taking time with the assignments you give so they actually get done. That’s the point, right? In short, slowing down to move faster.

2. You expect people to read your mind

The next warning sign that what you’ve delegated won’t get done is when you delegate without being clear about what you really want accomplished.

Recognize this scenario?

“Hey Jan, could you do this for me, please? Thanks!”

Jan, eager to get ahead and look good in front of her boss, accepts the job, even though she has no idea what the job entails. The more time goes by, the more frustrated and confused Jan gets, but manages to actually get something done.

Unfortunately, the work Jan does in no way resembles what Jan’s boss had in mind, and, instead of giving Jan another chance with better instructions, Jan’s boss takes the job away from her, fiercely determined to never delegate anything again.

A least not to Jan!

Note this well: People can’t read your mind when you delegate something to them. Take time when delegating anything to clearly define what actually needs to get done. Apart from this practice, you really aren’t delegating at all but merely dumping on people.

3. You delegate without a due date

When people receive a delegated task, in their head they’re starting to shuffle the deck.

What I mean by that is any new task being asked of someone gets added to a list of things that already exists for them to do. The recipient must figure out how to fit that new task into their already full schedule, so they sort through the “cards” of their day in search of where to place it.

When no due date is given a delegated task, or at least agreed upon between you and the person being delegating to, guess where your assignment goes?

Yep, to the bottom of the deck!

4. You delegate without following through

Here’s the brutal reality of leadership: people don’t listen to your words, they listen to your actions. So if you give someone something to do, but never follow up on it. That action–or the lack of it–is listened to loudly and clearly.

And the message people hear is this: When you ask someone to do something, you’re really not serious about it. You’re just kidding.

The problem is, you may be deadly serious about needing a project to get done, but without following through, you communicate that you aren’t by your very actions.

Inspect what you except. Even if it’s a five minute progress report. This kind of accountability sends a powerful message that you’re a leader focused on action and will help your people fulfill their best intentions.

5. You delegate to the wrong person

Often in the desperate hunt to find someone to do things we no longer have time to do, we pick the first person who makes eye contact with us that day. And this person, desperate as well to make a good impression on us, agrees to do it.

But they’re the wrong person. Ungifted or unskilled (or both) in doing what you’re asking them to do.

In defining what needs to be done for the successful completion of a task, take the extra step to identify what skills and abilities are needed to succeed in it as well. Never force a square peg to fit into a round hole, you’ll destroy both the peg and the hole in the process.

6. You view delegation as an event and not a process

The biggest challenge I face with my clients in the area of delegation is their perception of it. They see delegation as an event where something they need done is given to someone else to do. But, again, this really isn’t delegation, it’s dumping.

Real delegation has a five step process that looks like this:

Step 1: I do.
Step 2: I do, you watch.
Step 3: We do.
Step 4: You do, I watch.
Step 5: You do.

The first step of delegation is the realization that you are doing way too much. You know what that feels like, and so do I.

The next step, however, is not giving some of those things to someone else to do, but simply having them watch you do it. From complicated tasks, like executing a sales cycle, to setting the office alarm, people need to know what a good job looks like before they can do that job well.

Then move forward in delegation, doing the task together and watching the other person do that task themselves, giving appropriate feedback. When all these steps are completed, delegation is also complete. So, too, the tasks being delegated.

7. You delegate without adjusting your leadership style throughout the process

When you look more deeply at the five steps in the delegation process outlined above, you’ll notice that throughout the process leaders need to adjust their style each step along the way.

In the early stages of delegation a leader brings more direction to the table, more instruction and demonstration. In the middle stages of delegation, an effective leader’s style becomes more collaborative with a mutual interchange of ideas and decisions.

Then, in the end, less is more as a leader releases a person to take actions on their own and keep them informed on what they are doing.

Failure to adapt your leadership style throughout the delegation process short circuits the development of your people and, in the end, leaves you doing everything yourself.

A genius with a thousand helpers is still a genius. He or she just isn’t a leader.

8. You delegate without explaining why something must get done

The brilliant Victor Frankl, survivor of the Nazi death camps, once said, “He who has a why can endure any how.”

Many of the tasks you’re delegating are difficult and challenging, or conversely repetitive and routine (a different kind of challenging). But they still need to get done. Right?

Tie each task you give others to do into the  big picture of the vision of your company–its why–so that your people have a cause that empowers them to endure the how.

In this way execution is just as much about emotion and it is about action. Providing a meaningful purpose for action powerfully engages people’s emotions and is a hidden driver of effective delegation.

9. You delegate without delegating the appropriate level of authority

Another element of delegation that needs to be determined is the level of authority being delegated to complete the task at hand. Lack of clarity on this can lead to delegation disasters.

Here are the four levels of delegated authority a person may act within:

Level 1: Do it.
Level 2: Do it and tell me what you did.
Level 3: Do a part of it and talk with me before doing more.
Level 4: Decide on what you plan to do and go over the plan with me before you do it.

These are vastly different levels of authority, from free reign to close monitoring. Deciding which is appropriate, based on the complexity of the task and the experience of the person being delegated to, establishes important  boundaries within which a person may act. A lack of boundaries like these paralyzes your people.

These levels of delegated authority, as with one’s leadership style, should also adjust throughout the delegation process. In this way a person is free to do what they need to do without checking with you first, unless, of course, checking with you first is what you need for them to do.

10. You only delegate down and not up or sideways

Delegation is not limited to being applied in one direction only: from you to your employees. You can delegate up to your manager and delegate sideways to your peers. Wise leaders know which direction to go when a job needs doing.

Specifically, there may be tasks that would take an employee hours to do, and perhaps never get done, that someone else in the organization can accomplish in a matter of minutes.

Not because they’re better than that employee, but because they’re much better positioned in the organization to accomplish the task. Part of picking the right person to delegate to is picking the right place in the structure of your company to look for that person.

11. You close a meeting without using the three W’s

The most efficient way to utilize delegation is in a team meeting. Instead of having a dozen one-on-one sessions, a team meeting allows you to talk with a dozen people at the same time, and, just as important, for them to talk to each other to coordinate the details of delegation.

Most team meetings, however, are poorly led, go over their allotted time, and end frantically with everyone racing off to the next meeting. Opportunity lost!

Here’s how to prevent that:

  • Wrap up every meeting 10 minutes before its scheduled ending point.
  • Review all actions items discussed in the meeting
  • Make sure every action item is defined by Who is going to do What by When

These three W’s, Who is going to do What by When, are the backbone of effective delegation and work amazingly well as the wrap up to all business meetings.

12. You open a meeting without reviewing the three W’s

Again, team meetings are the very best place to utilize delegation. At the start of a meeting, however, people are eager to jump in to new business. Who doesn’t like to discuss new things?

Don’t! At least not yet, anyway.

First, review the action items from the last meeting and the three W’s related to them. By doing this you make a statement that you are a serious leader (Remember, actions speak louder that words), and begin to build a culture of accountability in your company.

13. You delegate without celebrating past success

What’s the best way to ensure that something you need done is completed over and over again?

Reward it. Simple, right?

Positive reinforcement encourages your people to take those actions again and again. Yet most leaders, upon the successful completion of a project, move on the the next big thing.

And, at some level, leadership is about the future and not the past. So I understand the impulse to move on to the next big thing. But consider this: You can’t drive a car down the road with an empty gas tank.

Recognition and reward, even something a simple as a thank-you note, fills people’s emotional gas tank and empowers them to keep going, even in the most difficult of times.

Conversely, if your employees don’t think you appreciate what they do, their gas tank will run dry and their car will stop completely.

Here’s the bottom line

“Getting things done through others is a fundamental leadership skill. Indeed, if you can’t do it, you’re not leading,” declares Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.

Delegation is how you get things done through others. Master it and you’ll become the leader you know in your heart you can be.

Pick one of these warning signs to work on each week for the next 13 weeks. Master it and move on to the next one. In just 90 days you’ll be a much better delegator and a much better leader.

Your people will thank you!

Written on 9/27/2012 by Bill Zipp. Speaker, coach and consultant, Bill Zipp helps busy leaders do what matters most in business and in life. Bill is also the author of the popular ebook, The Smart Leader’s Guide to Personal Productivity,, available for FREE to DLM readers. Photo Credit:
Tim  Green
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