What is delegation? (including types and benefits)

Updated 30 September 2022

The ability to delegate is one of the important skills for individuals in a leadership position. Delegation of tasks can help employees become confident in their abilities and develop crucial skills to achieve an organisation's objectives. Learning what delegation is can help you focus on other important tasks, such as planning and business analysis, which can improve your effectiveness. In this article, we explore the answer to 'what is delegation?', outline the types of delegation, highlight the elements and principles of delegation, explain the steps you can use to delegate effectively and discuss the benefits of delegation.

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What is delegation?

Delegation is the shifting of responsibility and authority for certain tasks from one person to another. A manager or supervisor can divide tasks and allocate them to their subordinates, allowing leaders to instead focus on other important tasks. Delegation can also help boost employees' confidence in their abilities and encourage creativity and innovation.

Related: Time-management skills: definition, examples and tips for improvement

Types of delegation

The main types of delegation include:

General or specific delegation

General delegation is when a manager gives a subordinate the authority to perform all functions in their department. Some of the functions may include organising, planning and directing. The manager exercises overall control and can offer guidance to the subordinates when needed. Comparatively, specific delegation is when a manager assigns a subordinate a specific task or function. The tasks assigned are precise. For example, an HR manager may ask an HR assistant to conduct interviews for a certain department for a particular period.

Formal or informal delegation

Formal delegation is a part of an organisational structure. Whenever a person gets assigned a certain task, they also receive authority. This means that everyone automatically gets authority as per their duties. Informal delegation occurs due to circumstances. For example, an individual may perform a certain task not because it's their duty, but because it's necessary to perform their job.

Lateral delegation

Lateral delegation occurs when authority gets delegated informally. Sometimes, an individual may require help in accomplishing a certain task that a manager has delegated to them. It may take time to get help from these people. The individual can indirectly contact them to solicit help in completing the tasks without getting permission from their supervisor.

Elements of delegation

There are three main elements of delegation:

  • Assignment of responsibilities: The delegation of tasks only occurs when the superior doesn't have the time to complete all their work. The superior assigns the tasks to their immediate subordinate.

  • Delegation of authority: After a delegation of work, the superior may delegate both authority and power for the subordinate to accomplish the tasks in a specific manner and time frame.

  • Accountability: Accountability means that the subordinate has to answer to their immediate senior for the delegated tasks. Depending on the organisation or task, a supervisor may hold a subordinate accountable in case of any mistake or fault, but in most cases, the superior may still be responsible to the management even if they are not the ones who performed the tasks.

Principles of delegation

Delegation can become more effective if you adhere to the following principles of delegation:

Principle of results expected

This principle suggests that the manager delegates authority to subordinates and clearly defines the task and expected results. They may also provide clear goals, targets and performance standards that they expect from the subordinates. This enables the subordinate to understand the significance of the task, its relationship to other tasks and their authority limits.

Principle of authority and responsibility

According to this principle, the manager can balance responsibility and authority whenever they delegate tasks. If you give a subordinate a duty to perform a certain task, it's equally important that you give them the power and independence to carry out the job effectively. It's important that authority match the task given because some employees may misuse excessive authority. This principle also suggests that you can hold the subordinates accountable for the authority you grant them.

Principle of absolute responsibility

As per this principle, the manager can delegate authority but not responsibility. This means that even if the manager delegates tasks to a subordinate, they are still responsible and accountable to their superiors for those tasks. The manager can guide the subordinates regarding the job standards to make sure they perform a quality job, but the manager remains responsible until the completion of the job.

Related: The difference between responsibility vs. accountability at work

Principle of scalar

This principle suggests clear guidelines on an organisation's chain of command. This is to help every subordinate become aware of whom to report to and whom they can take orders from. The scalar principle also suggests a clear authority limit for which an assistant can exercise initiative.

Principle of authority level

According to this principle, the subordinates can handle any matters within the scope of their authority. They can only consult their superiors about decisions they cannot make at their level. The principle also recommends that the manager avoid interfering with the actions and decisions of the subordinates. This helps give employees autonomy and may also allow employees to build confidence in their abilities.

Principle of unity of command

This principle suggests that each subordinate is under the command of only one superior. This means employees can only receive tasks from one superior and may report only to them. The principle of unity of command helps avoid a situation where a person reports to two superiors for the same job. It can help reduce conflicts and confusion in the workplace.

How to delegate tasks effectively

If you're in a leadership position, consider using the following steps to learn how to delegate effectively:

1. Know when to delegate

The first step to delegating tasks is to understand when to delegate. For example, if an employee is looking to advance to a leadership position, you can delegate a few leadership tasks to build and improve their skills. Consider evaluating whether assigning a certain task can contribute to an employee's development or help them improve their skills before delegating any task.

2. Select the right candidate

Consider delegating tasks to a candidate who can effectively complete a certain task or benefit from the assigned task. If you notice that one of your employees requires improvement of a certain skill, you can delegate tasks to them that can help them improve that skill. For example, if one employee fears addressing people, you can delegate tasks requiring talking and interacting with others. That way, they can improve their communication and interpersonal skills. You may also delegate time-sensitive tasks to an employee who has the right skills and strengths to complete such duties in time.

3. Explain your reasoning

Consider explaining to your subordinates the reasons for assigning them a certain job. Explaining your reasons can help them know how to approach the assignment and boost their morale. For example, if you ask an employee to conduct an interview, consider explaining that you know they want to become a manager soon and that the assigned task can help them develop managerial and leadership skills. This might help encourage them to handle the task with seriousness and ask questions that can help them complete the task successfully.

4. Describe the goals and provide resources

Describing the goals of a certain job can help the employee to understand what you expect from them and what they require to achieve to complete the tasks. Having clear goals can help employees develop steps to complete the tasks, helping them improve their creative and problem-solving skills. You may also provide them with the resources they use when performing an assigned task. This can help them complete the project successfully without any delays or challenges.

Related: How to develop SMART goals

5. Give feedback

Consider giving feedback to your subordinates after they complete the tasks you give them. This helps employees know how they can improve when approaching their next job and may also help build their confidence, especially if they complete the task as you expected. You may also guide the employee to perform a specific task if you notice that their method is not effective.

Related: Positive feedback: why it's important and how to give it

Benefits of delegation

Here are some of the benefits of delegation:

  • gives the manager time and energy to perform more critical tasks

  • empowers employees by enabling them to demonstrate their ability to take on new tasks

  • helps in grooming future leaders and managers

  • supports new skill development

  • encourages prioritisation of tasks, which helps improve time management skills

  • helps in boosting employees' confidence, allowing them to be innovative and creative

  • enhances faster decision-making

  • helps in defining an organisational structure

  • encourages collective success, allowing every employee to feel that they are part of the organisation

  • helps managers develop and improve their skills because they have more time to work on those skills

  • enhances an organisation's efficiency and productivity

  • creates trust between employees and encourages communication

  • helps managers learn how to create and manage their employees

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