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Five Steps to Delegating Successfully

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No matter how smart, focused, and hard working you are, you can't do everything by yourself all the time. Sometimes you simply must delegate tasks to other people. Nobody is born knowing how to delegate; as with any other skill, delegating well takes thought and practice. Learn from Pat Brans how to delegate any kind of task successfully.
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We all delegate in different directions and in different situations. Fortunately, the skills that make for a successful delegator in a specific direction and a particular situation often make for a successful delegator in a different direction or situation. All you have to do is get good at those skills to master delegation—no matter where or what you need to delegate.

Before we move on, let me clarify what I mean by delegating in different directions. We delegate in three directions—up, down, and sideways. Following are some examples of delegating in those directions:

  • Delegating up. You delegate up when you ask your boss to give you a written statement of requirements.
  • Delegating down. You delegate down when you ask a programmer who reports to you to correct a bug.
  • Delegating sideways. You delegate sideways when you ask a colleague, who's an expert at a library routine that finds the right information from a huge block of unstructured data, to modify that routine to help you solve a nagging problem in your current project.

These hypothetical work examples illustrate a few cases, but you probably will delegate in many other situations within the context of work, and still others outside of work.

Never Forget the Importance of Trust

Regardless of the direction you delegate (upward, downward, or sideways), or whether the situation is work-related or in the context of your private life, your degree of confidence as to whether the job will get done depends on your level of trust in the person you chose as your delegate. Consider the following four levels of trust and how you might behave given each level.

Trust Level


Level 1

You don't trust the other person at all. Don't even try delegating to that person; it's not worth the effort. In fact, do what you can to end your relationship with that person.

Level 2

You trust the other person to get the job done, but only with repeated reminders. You know you'll need to spend time making sure that the work gets done. It's worthwhile delegating to this person only if the perceived outcome is greater than the cost of your time, or if you think that by delegating different tasks you can build a more trusting relationship with him or her over time.

Level 3

You trust the other person to go out and find all possible solutions, but you aren't sure he or she has the judgment to choose the best of those solutions. Ask the delegate to find the solutions, but you decide which solution is best; then the delegate will implement the solution.

Level 4

You trust the other person to take on the problem and solve it. If you simply point out the problem, you know this delegate will find all the options, choose the right solution, and implement it in a timely manner. Being able to count on someone this much is rare; when you find this person, seal the relationship.

Regardless of your degree of trust in the other person, establish early in the process that you will check in with each other. Set times or events that will prompt the two of you to meet and discuss progress. Then stick with the plan. Above all, avoid "popping in" to check up on your delegate just because you're having a bad day emotionally and feeling insecure about the project.

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