3 big reasons why managers fail at delegation
  • leadership
  • Blog post

3 big reasons why managers fail at delegation

Delegation isn’t just about giving other people work so you, the leader, aren’t burdened with it. Effective delegation becomes a force multiplier. It allows you to drive results through other people and greatly increase your ability to get things done.

But unfortunately, too many leaders fail at delegation, blighting their careers in the process. Why is that?

The research

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside, were interested in just this question. To look for an answer, they did two studies in which they surveyed people about how powerful they felt in various aspects of their lives, and also about their attitudes toward managing employees.

The researchers found that the less powerful these people felt, the more likely they were to agree with authoritarian management where bosses micromanage all decisions. The idea the researchers came away with was that managers who feel insecure try to compensate by exercising tight control over their employees.

That’s a startling conclusion. It’s not that managers drunk with power and swollen with authority try to meddle in their employees’ every action. No, it’s the reverse: Managers who aren’t sure of themselves are the ones most likely to do it, out of fear and/or feelings of inadequacy.

And of course, if you’re micromanaging you can’t be delegating effectively. You’re either not delegating at all, or you’re delegating and then riding people’s backs rather than letting them get on with the tasks you entrusted to them.

Role confusion

So insecurity causes leaders to fail at delegation. But there are a couple more reasons why leaders fall down in this area:

A misunderstanding of roles.

Managers might think that their job is to do the important things, and pass the routine work on to their subordinates.  That’s part of what delegation is about, but not the key part. Ultimately, delegation is not about you, the leader. It’s about them, your employees. You can multiply your impact only if you replicate your knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors in others.

Lack of a development plan for their employees.

You can’t just take a “sink-or-swim” approach, throwing them into the fray without proper training. Instead, when employees are hired, their leaders need to give them an onboarding plan with a clear agenda. This includes a list of goals and desired outcomes, a series of incremental tasks that will build the employees’ knowledge and skill base, and specific dates when these tasks need to be accomplished.

When not to

There are specific times and situations where leaders ought not try to delegate.

For example, if there’s an operational crisis, the leader may have to step in him- or herself to take over. There may not be time or latitude for delegation. It’s also inappropriate to delegate to beginners or to people who lack the core skills required. That would be an abdication of responsibility.

But when you do delegate effectively, you chalk up two big wins: First, as you replicate the knowledge, skills and behaviors that made you successful, your organization gets an entire team of high performers. And second, you then have the time to take on high-level strategic activities and make an even greater impact.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Delegation: How to Get Results Through Other People.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Haselhuhn, M. et al. (2017). With great power comes shared responsibility: Psychological power and the delegation of authority. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 1-4.


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