5 Reasons Delegation Fails


I encounter many leaders who claim to want delegation to be a part of their leadership. They know the value. But they are often frustrated with the results they receive on delegated projects, so they tend to control the project — which isn’t delegation — or they do everything themselves.

Many times I hear two sides to the reason why delegation fails. A leader may feel they have done their job simply by delegating. The blame naturally shifts to the delegate who should have figured out how to do the work.

The delegate often feels overwhelmed, like they didn’t have the freedom, resources or knowledge to complete the project to the leader’s expectations.

Both sides are frustrating.

Many times the problem rests with the way a project was delegated from the beginning. There are certainly times when the delegate drops the ball and doesn’t follow through with the task, but in my experience, the failure of delegation most often rests with the leader.

Here are 5 reasons delegation fails:

A predetermined win was never clear or understood. Everyone needs to be on the same page as to what is trying to be accomplished. Further, there should be accountability in place prior to delegation. When someone receives a project, they need to be given a timeline for completion. They need a system of follow up, measures of accomplishment or benchmarks towards completion.

The leader dumped or controlled instead of delegated. I have written about this previously, but the leader retains a level of responsibility to check in periodically with the delegate’s progress. At the same time, it’s delegation. There’s a release of direct oversight which needs to take place. The delegate should feel freedom to accomplish the predetermined objective in their own way. There’s a balance and partnership in a healthy delegation process, where the leader remains close enough to assure completion, but distant enough to let people do their work.

The delegate was not properly prepared. Assuming someone knows how to do a task and can figure out their way on their own isn’t only naive it’s unfair. Questions need to be asked and information given on the front end to make sure the person has the ability to complete the task or the ability to learn along the way. This may involve the leader spending more time in the beginning phases of a task to ensure completion is attainable by the delegate. Specialized training may be needed. In fact, a failed delegation may be just the experience someone needs to do a better job next time.

Adequate resources were not in place. It’s difficult to expect someone to complete a task when the leader hasn’t given the proper tools for the job. Sometimes anxious leaders delegate a project too soon, before the team is ready, either in structure, people power or resources.

The wrong person was chosen for the task. Let’s face it. Not everyone is up to every task. Many times delegation fails because the leader picked the wrong person for the job. Selecting the best person on the front end or reassigning when an improper fit is discovered is critical to assure completion of a task.

Do you have delegated projects that didn’t get completed this past year?

Could one of these be the reason? If so, who needs to take responsibility for the failure?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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15 thoughts on “5 Reasons Delegation Fails

  1. Ron, great post! I have always struggled with delegation as a leader, but I agree that delegation has to be wrapped in a strategy. Most of the delegation I did early on was like throwing the scraps that I didn't want to others instead of inviting them to the table and asking them to participate in the meal. I learned that if people are going to feel truly valued, they are going to need something more to bite into than just breadcrumbs from my to do list.

  2. Ron – These are very good points about delegation. With #2 I think you hit the bullseye. Too many times I felt that way like people were dumping stuff on me, rather than delegating. A very subtle difference, but a very important one!

  3. Another factor I've seen (that is closely related to many that you named) is a leader who is both unfamiliar with the specific time commitment that a project will take and the current obligations that the delegate is already handling. It's unrealistic, in my opinion, to expect a leader to know the details of their team's schedules – so I think the best solution is just good communication.
    I've seen this delegation breakdown in multiple settings.

    Another thing I've noticed is leaders who delegate work but not authority. They end up tying up a lot of resources in red tape instead of empowering their organization to accomplish more.

  4. Blanchard and Hersey's work on situational leadership (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hersey%E2%80%93Blanchard_situational_theory) is also instructive here. In my consulting practice I have seen many instances of delegation that did not match an individual's motivation and skill level in the organization. One has to match the level of delegation to the progress an individual has made in the journey from enthusiastic beginner to peak performer. The five levels of delegation (http://michaelhyatt.com/the-five-levels-of-delegation.html) fit well into this process. Not only do they fit well, when employed correctly they move the person to whom the task has been delegated further in their understanding, competence, and value to the organization.

  5. Hey Ron,
    Yeah, this is a good list. I would say that I have to learn to do a better job at #3. I have very uniquely qualified people that I supervise and sometimes I assume that they know what I want and can get the job done. Sometimes it's all about a word of encouragement while they are working towards their goals!