DevOps Institute

How to Delegate: an Important Human Skill for 2023

Culture and Human Skills, Humans of DevOps, Transformational Leadership

Delegation concept. Silhouettes drawn on sheets and arrows. stock photo

By Marco Coulter, Technology Evangelist and DevOps Institute Ambassador

In this post, we will explore the human skill of delegation – what it is, why delegating is important, how to delegate and a few tips.

As a recent guest on The Humans of DevOps Podcast, a podcast dedicated to highlighting the human side of DevOps, I shared my approach to delegation. Humans are very complex, yet we don’t talk about human skills or issues nearly enough. Technology tends to distract from the all-important human side. The annual Upskilling Report from DevOps Institute indicates that people want to know more about human skills, so today, let’s do a deep dive into delegation. 

What is delegation?

As we approach America’s Thanksgiving, imagine you are sitting at a table, tasting your food, and it’s not salty enough. The shaker is at the other end of the table. How do you get the salt? You ask, “Can you pass the salt, please?” or more politely, you add a name at the front, “Grandma, can you please pass the salt?” to specify responsibility. Well, that’s delegation. You’re trying to get someone else to do something. Otherwise, you would have to get up, walk around the table, grab the salt shaker and get back to your seat. 

A more formal definition of delegation would include assigning responsibility for outcomes, along with the authority to act to deliver the desired results. Responsibility, authority and desired results – that’s the basis of delegation. 

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The subtlety within delegation comes from the human aspect. Imagine the people at the other end of the table are complete strangers to you. Should you ask them in English or another language? Does their culture respond better to commands, requests or suggestions? Will their acknowledgment come back as direct acceptance or indirect support? I’ve been lucky enough in my career to live in three countries and manage teams all over the world. Different cultures give and receive delegation in different ways. When we’re delegating, we need to understand how our delegation is being received.

Communicating Delegation

It’s important for the person on the other end to correctly receive delegation. That’s the communication side of delegating–everything from how we speak to how others hear. One of the key aspects surrounding delegation is that you will make mistakes and also they will make mistakes. Keeping notes to track your delegations is the best way to track your progress. 

For best communication, make sure you have enough time to delegate effectively. Don’t wait until you’re completely swamped because you don’t have time to delegate effectively. Then you have to know who you’re delegating to. You must identify what the tasks will be and when they should be completed. As a result, you’ll have enough time to communicate your goals.

It’s quicker if I do it

You often hear it’s just quicker if I do it, or that’s not how I do it. This has a name: self-enhancement bias. It’s a classic trap that managers (even experienced ones) sometimes fall into. When a manager allows their perception of work quality to become more negative, the less they are involved in the task. However, if you’ve assumed that your way is the best, you’ve stopped learning about that task. The negative thing about self-enhancement bias is that you feel your value comes from your explicit technical knowledge versus your human knowledge.

Read more: How to Delegate Effectively: 9 Tips for Managers

Many of us are brought up doing tactical things. Delegation is you making the transition to being strategic. It’s hard to let go of that tactical piece, especially when you know you’re good at it, and you might get it done faster. So that brings us to why it is so important to delegate and when not to delegate.

To delegate or to not delegate?

Quite simply put, if you do not delegate, you won’t get out of people what you need. That comes back to the thing of keeping notes about delegating, such as making a little note of why you thought the person was the right person and why you felt the task was the right task for that person. Remember to follow up and update your notes afterward about what you think went right and what you think went wrong. Always try to find three good things and, if you feel it needs to be brought up, some things that could be better. You must always bring up good things so that you’re emphasizing what it is you want in the future. If the work is of poor quality, coach and develop that employee to get to a satisfactory point when good work is turned in. Even after managing organizations around the world for decades, I still take these sorts of notes. At the end of a month, I evaluate what I learned that month, and I’m still learning things about people and delegation.

Read more: Learning to Delegate is Critical in Growing as a Leader

Returning to the concept of self-enhancement bias, if it’s a task that will only happen once, maybe you are the best person. However, recurring tasks are prime for delegation, and then you need to think about who else on your team you can delegate to. If you don’t have someone able to take on the task, you must ask why they aren’t ready to take on that task. As a leader, and manager, one of your roles should be working to build up your replacement. Otherwise, you can’t move on to better things. Some people think their expertise makes their job secure. It doesn’t work that way. At some point, a senior executive will see that as a weakness in the system or as a threat to the environment. They’ll either train more people, get rid of the system you’re an expert in, and replace it with something that many can work on. That’s the risk with the ‘do it myself’ mentality. 

How to Delegate?

Delegating frees up your own time for the things that are your job. They might not be deliverables like widgets or code but allow you to focus on more strategic responsibilities. 

In traditional structures, we think of delegation hierarchically as in the military. Matrix organizations make things trickier as you are delegating to someone you can only influence. In either situation, start by thinking about how you receive delegation. What led you to feel good about somebody giving you a task or not so good? When did you have to keep returning to the person who gave you the task because you didn’t know how to complete it. Did you feel like they threw you in the water without teaching you how to swim? 

Remember the delegation basics are: 

  • Scope – what specifically needs to be done and when is it due
  • Resources – what and who can they use to achieve this
  • Responsibility – what do they have the authority to change unilaterally
  • Reward – what is the motivation (money, recognition, career, etc.)
  • Priority – how this task gets ordered against existing work

Observing other people and stealing (um, borrowing) good ideas are great ways of learning delegation. 

You may like: To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well

Being clear about the reward is an important aspect of delegation. It’s not always a $50 Starbucks card or a raise or a drink down at the pub. It could be allowing growth and skill development. It may be showing you trust your team, which will also help earn their loyalty. Trust them, earn their loyalty, and everyone wins as they will be eager to bring new, fresh ideas. Sometimes, a reward can be recognition. Acclaim them in front of their peers, management and executives.

Remember that when you delegate you are giving more work to someone who may have a fully planned day already. You may need to negotiate or guide them on what not to do or what to postpone.  

Again, you’re always trying to develop the person/persons who can replace you to move ahead in your career. They’re satisfied that they’re growing in their career, and they go home at the end of the day versus going home and looking at LinkedIn.

Finally, the feedback loop also applies to yourself. Once the task is complete, invite the recipient to share their thoughts on how well you delegated. Did I give you enough information at the front to get the task done? Do you think you’re the right person for this task? Then add the feedback to your notes on delegation.

Receiving Delegation

Wherever you are in the enterprise, even the CEO, you will be receiving delegation. A common misconception on the receiving side is when your leader repeatedly asks you how a task is going. It is not necessarily a sign of a lack of trust. It could be a lack of communication on your part. It’s important to keep them in the loop. When someone is doing this to me, I make sure I send them periodic updates – even a simple ‘still on track’ note can calm the waters. Trust needs to be established both ways.

Advice for Delegating

You will fail sometimes, but don’t panic. Just review your notes, learn from the mistakes and try again. Two hints from my experiences: watch out for bounce delegation, where they try to pass the task back to you, and secondly, once you are swamped, it can be worth sacrificing some personal time to work out what to delegate. Delegation is an effective leadership skill, as well as a human skill. Now seriously, can someone pass the salt, please? 

Marco Coulter, (he/him), @marcocoulter Marco has an over 20-year history of guiding companies globally in technology adoption. Published in Forbes and CIO magazines, he is a sought-after consultant, advising and reviewing strategic plans with dozens of large enterprises and startups. A former startup CTO, Marco brings experience from all sides of technology, including business units, product and development teams spread through USA, EMEA and APAC. Marco’s focus earned him the nickname of “tech-whisperer” for his skills in translating business drivers for a technical audience and technical concepts for business leaders. When taking a rare break from technology, Marco can be found traveling the world or harvesting fresh vegetables from his NYC garden.


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