How to Delegate Delegation: 4 Steps to Success

We’re all familiar the children’s party game telephone.

Telephone is played when one person whispers something into the ear of another person who whispers what they heard in the ear of another person, on down the line of a half a dozen people or so.

Then the person at the end of the line tells everyone what they heard and laugh and laugh and laugh at how different it is from what was originally said.

Except you’re not laughing.

You’re not laughing because that’s your life at work. You manage managers who manage other employees, and this exact thing happens to you most every day.

You ask someone to ask someone to do something. But it doesn’t get done, or at least not in the way you need it to get done. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite actually occurs.

Not funny.

So it’s time to meet this challenge head on. Here are four steps to delegating delegation successfully:

1. Provide crystal clear clarity in delegating delegation

Any means of delegation fails for lack of clarity. But when a delegated task is handed off from one person to another person and, then, to another person, the need to be clear is even more critical.

As simple as it sounds, leaders who use the three W’s without exception provide this kind of clarity in delegation. They also create a talk track that is easily remembered and repeated to others.

  • What needs to be done? Specifically define the task at hand.
  • Who is going to do it? That is, identify the specific person, or persons, accountable for its completion.
  • When will it be done? Set both the final deadline and intermediate milestones.

In addition to the three W’s, a leader may also increase delegation clarity by discussing how a task should be done, and, conversely, not how, if there are dangers to avoid in completing it.

There’s fine line here, however. Too much how and not how, and a person will feel micromanaged, not enough, however, and they’ll feel abandoned. That’s why I used the word “discuss” in the paragraph above. Real, two-way conversation reduces the sense of being dictated to, as opposed to being delegated to, and builds emotional engagement around the task.

2. Follow-through consistently in delegating delegation

The typical action a busy leader takes once they delegate something to someone else is check that item off their list. Big mistake.

Delegated is not done. At least not yet.

When you’re a leader, people listen your actions to determine what’s really important, not your words. You could talk about a project until you’re blue in the face, but if you never follow-through on its progress, others will conclude that it’s not a top priority.

If you delegate something to someone else to do—even if you’ve set a final deadline and intermediate milestones—and never check on that timeline, your people will conclude that it never really needed to get done in the first place.

“Follow-through is the cornerstone of execution, and every leader who’s good at executing follows through religiously,” write  Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.

“Following through ensures that people are doing the things they committed to, according to the agreed timetable. It exposes any lack of discipline and connection between ideas and actions, and forces the specificity that is essential to synchronize the moving parts of an organization.”

I follow-through on a delegated task by placing the item in my things to do list in the passive voice. That is, I state it as an action that someone needs to do to me, as opposed to something I need to do myself.

For instance, I currently manage a small sales team for a client of mine, and every Monday I expect each of these salespeople to send me an updated sales forecasting report. This is how it’s stated in my task list for the day:

Receive weekly sales forecasting report

Most of the time these reports come in without fail, and I check it off my list. But occasionally someone forgets. So I send out a friendly email reminder.

Without a follow-through system, however, ultimately I would forget about the sales forecasting reports and the salespeople I manage (for whom filling out reports is not their favorite thing to do anyway) would conclude that it’s not important and stop sending them to me completely.

Consistent, systematic follow-through like this takes very little time and ensures that what you delegate actually gets done. That, of course, is the point. Isn’t it?

3. Celebrate success freely in delegating delegation

When delegated tasks gets done, it’s the tendency of busy leaders to immediately move on to the next project. That’s what your job is, after all, to move the organization forward, not spend time stuck in the past. Right?

Not exactly.

Yes, it’s your job to move the organization forward, but moving on to next big thing without taking the time to thank your people wastes an opportunity to ensure future performance.

Consider this. When someone does something for you and you thank them, are they likely to do more of that something or less? More, of course. So before moving on, guarantee future success by genuinely thanking people for past performance, publicly, privately, or both.

When you’re a manager of managers, you have a whole string of people to thank when something important gets done, and the electricity of that recognition energizes the entire organization. Additionally, your celebration of success models for your managers how to do the same for their people, energizing, once again, the entire organization.

“Because of its power, ridiculously low cost and rarity,” Gallup researchers Rodd Wagner an James Harter write in 12: The Elements of Great Managing, “praise and recognition is one of the greatest lost opportunities in the business world today.”

4. Conduct postmortems without blame in delegating delegation

This final step to delegating delegation recognizes that not everything goes right when we give things to others to do. It’s critical, then, to review what happened and why.

The problem, however, with the typical postmortem is that blame is shoveled out by bucket load, causing people to be guarded in their conversation and protective of their turf. Not exactly the climate for open and honest communication. Some leaders, then, avoid analysis entirely and never learn from the past. Not a very good alternative either.

MORE: Resolving Conflict at Work without Villains and Victims

Here are some solutions to this problem:

  • Create an environment where success is celebrated freely. It will place deposits in people’s emotional bank account and allow you to talk about less positive issues when they arise.
  • If you contributed to the lapse in performance in any way, honestly admit your contribution. Your openness will set the tone for the entire discussion. Leaders go first.
  • Keep all discussions factual. Don’t allow personal attacks or subjective opinions.
  • Thoroughly talk a matter through and then be done with it. Thank everyone for their input and close the door on the issue forever.
  • If personal correction needs to be made as a result of your review, correct in private. In public accept full responsibility for what happened on your watch

An ability to delegate delegation will significantly increase your leadership effectiveness, both with the leaders you lead and the people who report to them. The absence of this critical skill, however, will diminish organizational capacity, just like the party game telephone.

Follow these four steps to achieve the former while avoiding the latter.