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How to delegate effectively: Tips for entrepreneurs

Learning to successfully delegate will help you get to those higher-value jobs, relieve some of your personal stress and find employees willing to take on more responsibility

8-minute read

Do you have a problem with delegating? Are you unable to let go and give over tasks to employees?

For many owners and managers, not delegating enough work is a stumbling block on both a personal and professional level, causing stress in their lives and impeding growth for their company.

It’s challenging to strike the right balance between maintaining control over your business and delegating work to employees or contractors. More importantly, your refusal to hand over responsibility can take a toll on business results, employee engagement and your own personal life.

Dr. Susan Biali Haas, a mental health expert in burnout prevention, says learning to better delegate will allow you to find more time for performing the high-level work you were meant to do.

“Typically, managers and owners are not finding enough time to focus on things like vision, strategy and long-term planning. I point out to them that there are things stopping them from doing the important parts of their role,” says the Vancouver-based doctor who also lectures and coaches.

“Once they start delegating, I have them pay attention to how good it feels to have those things off their plate so that they can be doing those higher-value activities.”

Every time you are doing a task that you feel you shouldn’t be doing, it’s an indication that you might not be delegating enough.

A manager’s mindset: Why do I avoid delegating?

For many managers and owners, not giving a task to someone else comes with a host of excuses.

  • “It would be easier to do the job myself.”
  • “There’s no time to teach my employees all these new tasks.”
  • “I don’t have the administrative support to set up new mandates for my employees.”
  • “We’re too short-staffed. I’m taking on this extra work because no one else has the time to do it.”
  • “My team is already working so hard. I don’t want to overburden them.”
  • “I don’t know who could take on this particular work.”

Patrick Bruning, Professor of Business Administration at the University of New Brunswick, says that some reasons for not properly delegating work do make sense.

“You may believe that the task involves sensitive content and should be performed by a person with an appropriate level of approval,” he says, giving the examples of legal papers, private correspondence and industry secrets.

“You might also have a real sense of responsibility and want to serve as a role model. Or you might find that doing the task yourself provides some form of tangible or symbolic benefit, such as a commission or promotion opportunity. Or you may simply just enjoy the task and are reluctant to give it up.”

While those might be legitimate reasons for not delegating, you can still find yourself with too many tasks on your plate, which will impinge on your own productivity and your mental health.

Red flags: Signs you’re overwhelmed with work

Taking on too many tasks and needing to delegate some of that work comes with some warning signs:

  • You’re feeling bogged down with routine tasks
  • You feel stressed and short-tempered
  • You’re not trusting your staff
  • Important tasks are not getting get done
  • Employees seem unsupportive

Planning and prioritizing can be a great way to feel like you’re taking back control, to calm the emotional brain.

What to do when you are feeling overwhelmed

If you’re overwhelmed as a manager, start asking yourself these questions:

  • Are there employees at my company who do not have enough work?
  • Who would be enthusiastic about taking on additional tasks if the opportunity arose?
  • Who among my employees is in a good position to be further challenged?
  • Are there tasks that I am currently doing that are very similar to those another on my team is doing? Could they take some of them over?

When things are calm, note down your priorities

Biali Haas says that when you are overwhelmed, the stress centres in your brain, sometimes referred to as the limbic system, are activated. But at the same time, the executive function and logical part of your brain, your cerebral cortex, is suppressed.

“So, we become more emotionally overwhelmed and anxious, and feel increasingly stressed,” she says, suggesting that at that point, you need to work on calming yourself down—addressing that limbic system—but also bringing the executive brain areas back online.

“Take some deep breaths, take out a piece of paper and start identifying what’s most important for you to get done and what you can let go. Planning and prioritizing can be a great way to feel like you’re taking back control, to calm the emotional brain.”

How to become better at delegating

There are several short- and long-term actions you can take to increase your ability to delegate:

  • Note down what you do as a manager
    Write down all your tasks over the course of two weeks, along with how much time you spend on them. Entrepreneurs who do this can often discover they spend surprising amounts of time on work that someone else in their team could be doing. Try delegating some of it and shift your focus to tasks that only you can do and which bring the greatest benefit to your company.
  • Take an inventory of your talents
    Look at your strengths and weaknesses and find out where you might need some help. Some managers are not suited for certain tasks and will select people from within their company who have the right skills to complete them.
  • Coach and develop a motivated employee
    You might want to start working closely with someone who can take on new tasks. This type of mentorship can help the person take over some of your extra tasks.
  • Have clearly defined roles
    “People need to focus on the most important things that they need to do. When they do that, a lot gets done,” says Biali Haas. “At the same time, we sometimes need to put down our work to help someone else who is struggling. So, it’s a balance.”
  • Recruit future managers
    Look out for the potential managers when hiring. That value will emerge as they develop. “They will become more capable so they can excel at future tasks delegated to them,” says Bruning.
  • Design overlap into your units
    The jobs at your company need to have enough overlap so that colleagues can transfer or delegate tasks to people capable of completing them.
  • Limit your tasks
    Bruning suggests that you limit the number of tasks you do in a day. “Every time you are doing a task that you feel you shouldn’t be doing, it’s an indication that you might not be delegating enough,” he says, suggesting you look at the tasks you’ve been taking on and practice delegating those that aren’t high priority, strategic or require your specific set of capabilities.
  • Allow employees to really take on a job
    It’s important for employees to have the freedom to do the task they have been delegated to do, and for you to realize that they might make some mistakes as they learn.
  • Look at coaching for you and your managers
    Ensure that owners and managers get relevant experience developing their own self-awareness, knowing what they can take on and what they need to let go of. A management coach can be helpful in this situation.
  • Know the limits of delegation
    Make sure not to create extra burdens for both the worker and the manager by micromanaging or by putting too much on the plate of an eager employee.

Examples of successful delegation

Bruning offers two case studies where managers learned to successfully delegate:

Case 1

A manager was overseeing the work of his salespeople, as well as tending to some of the corporate clients his company serves. He was finding the administrative and client-relations work overwhelming.

The manager decided to delegate. He gave some of the higher-value clients to a competent and experienced senior member of his staff and handed over a few other clients to a more junior member who had been looking for more work.

This situation helped the manager to attain a more reasonable workload, did not heavily impact the workload of the senior member and provided the junior member with higher-status work and developmental opportunities.

Case 2

A manager recognized there were consistency issues with her company’s delivery process. Despite the urgency to fix this, it was hard for her to tend to the problem: she was busy with multiple tasks that had a higher strategic priority.

She decided to form a temporary group of people who could develop a solution. She delegated the administration of this group to someone who was on a trajectory towards a managerial role.

The group, all experts in different fields, came together to find the solution to the delivery problem. That gave the manager time to search for a solution at a higher level. It also provided the group administrator with excellent developmental experience.

Next step

Explore BDC’s resources for entrepreneur well-being, including research, personal stories and practical advice.

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