Delegation: The Key to Effective Management

Sefton Davies

My experience working in and with organisations convinces me that the greatest skill required in senior managers is that of delegation, since it is the process of defining tasks and roles which lays the basis for effective teamwork. Even in small organisations, like families, there is a need for members to know who is responsible for what, and in large organisations the greater size makes it essential that complex process are broken down into manageable tasks which are entrusted to individual members. Yet, this process of delegation is often neglected, so that there is role confusion and overlap which lead to inefficient use of manpower and to conflict between members. The purpose of this article is to suggest ways in which such problems can be avoided.

Why Delegate?
Despite some managers' wish to control all aspects of management, organisations cannot be the responsibility of one person. Responsibility means making decisions for which one accepts the consequences, and it is not possible for one person to make all the decisions for everything that is happening during the complex activity of an organisation, and so means have to be found for devolving its multifarious tasks to all its members.

We can illustrate the process involved by taking the example of a large school, which we all have some experience of, in which the headteacher is responsible for ensuring that the students obtain a good education. She is accountable to the governors of the school for this, and, in the event of anything untoward happening, the governors will seek explanations from her. However, she cannot personally perform all the functions necessary to ensure success, since she cannot be in all the classrooms, etc., at the same time, so she has to limit the responsibilities she can accept, e.g., she may decide that her prime functions are for overall strategic planning, for external liaison and for staff development. All other functions she will give to her deputies. They in turn will determine what is reasonable for them to do and give all other responsibilities to heads of departments, and so on down the line until individual teachers are responsible for delivering the curriculum to the students. In this way, all the tasks needed to run the school are covered, yet no member of staff has an unmanageable load of work. Also, the headteacher has clear lines of accountability to herself from the most junior members of staff through the various levels of seniority , and in this way she can monitor how effectively the school is functioning.

The particular example used above, which is of a line-management structure, is, of course, only one, though probably the most common, way of structuring the division of responsibility; another very common way uses a matrix structure. In this, a differentiation is made between process functions which are cross-organisational, and project functions which control production and which are concerned with specific activities: in a school such a structure might result in process managers for personnel, curriculum, pastoral care, physical resources, etc., and project managers for the organisation of specific subjects, like science, maths., etc. Whichever structure is used, however, the principle of delegation remains the same, i.e.,

  • responsibility is distributed from the most senior executive to the remainder of the personnel, i.e., it is a top-down process.
  • accountability for the decisions made is from the delegatee to the delegator , i.e., it is a bottom-up process.

It is important to stress, at this point, that accountability can never be delegated, i.e., the delegator remains the one who must answer for actions taken, even by delegatees. This must mean that the chief executive is always answerable for the actions of subordinates, although he may not be responsible for them. It is extremely important, therefore, that the delegation process is correctly implemented.

The primary reason for delegating is, then, to ensure that all essential tasks are allocated to individuals through manageable structures, but there are other good reasons for devolving responsibility, e.g.:

  • it allows the full creativity of all members to be used in the best interests of the organisation, since everyone has a share in decision-making. Good delegation means that everyone can contribute to effective management; bad delegation may mean that everyone is at the mercy of powerful incompetents.
  • it encourages the development of expertise, since each person can acquire the skills and knowledge required of a specialised role. Nowadays, organisations must employ highly specialised staff because of their increasingly complex needs, e.g., in many ISKCON communities, the need for staff who are able to deal with government or the local community in preserving freedom of worship. Without delegation, it would be impossible for individuals to develop such competence.
  • it can ensure that the person best suited to a job has control over it. Despite the beliefs of many senior managers, seniority does not necessarily confer competence, and many junior staff are better equipped than their superiors to fulfil some roles, particularly those requiring knowledge and skills in technological areas like computing. A wise manager is willing to acknowledge the superior skills of subordinates and to give them responsibility and authority in these fields.
  • because it enables people to develop new skills and, therefore, to fulfil increasingly responsible positions within the organisation, it is an effective form of staff development: the best senior managers ensure that there is always a pool of trained staff ready for promotion, or, as one senior manager once told me, 'my main function is to train my successor'.

Despite the obvious advantages of delegation, however, my experience is that it is rarely done effectively, and a major reason is fear on the part of superordinates: fear of losing power and control to subordinates, fear of being seen to be redundant, fear of losing status, fear of being seen to be less expert in some fields than their subordinates, etc. Unwillingness to delegate has serious consequences which can be seen in many organisations, e.g.,

  • high levels of managerial stress from attempting to do everything oneself. Stress is now a major problem in many organisations, resulting in inefficiency, illness and poor use of resources. Failure to distribute work through delegation leads to overload on senior staff, who are usually the very ones who need to be fit to meet the challenges of modern management. However, it is essential that managers should not see delegation as a means of offloading their stress on to others!
  • demotivated staff, who have little of the challenge that derives from responsibility. Since they cannot contribute to successful decision-making, they will cease to care, and may even oppose or sabotage decisions imposed upon them. Apathy is a sure sign of poor delegation.
  • role overlap and confusion, leading to the hostility which emanates from interference in one's work-the 'looking-over-shoulders' climate of some organisations. A great deal of the conflict evident in organisations derives from this lack of clarity over who does what.
  • some work is not the responsibility of anyone in particular, which means that decisions are just not made; this is a particularly serious drawback in crisis situations, where decisions need to be made quickly and with confidence.

An effective and happy organisation requires people to feel that they have a clear-cut and important role to play in organisational success, and delegation allows this to happen.

What and How to Delegate
Any part of a manager's work can be delegated, from a major area of concern, which is delegated as a job description, to a small task requiring little time and few resources. However small the task, however, the delegation process is the same. It entails defining:

  • the task,
  • the accountability required of the delegatee,
  • the responsibilities being given to the delegatee,
  • the authority which is awarded to the delegatee.

THE TASK. Whether the delegated task is a short-term minor piece of work or a major part of the delegator's job, it must be worthwhile, i.e., it must contribute in a clearly visible way to the success of the organisation. Good organisations define their mission clearly, ensuring that all members share its values and objectives; they then determine all the tasks which need to be done in order to achieve it and these tasks are given to the most suitable members. Unless there is this clear definition of the task, and the delegatee fully understands its importance, there cannot be the commitment necessary to success. Some features of good task definition are :

  • clearly defined outcomes, e.g., ' the work will produce a clear statement of policy regarding recruitment ',
  • clear indication of the time frame, e.g., 'the report will be produced by December 31',
  • a statement of the monitoring procedures to be used, e.g., 'review meetings will be held on the first Monday of each month until completion',
  • a definition of the use to be made of the product, e.g., 'the report will be submitted to the Management Board for its approval'.

ACCOUNTABILITY. A delegated task represents part of the delegator's job which she would otherwise do and, since she remains answerable to her superiors for its success or failure it is necessary for her to know how well that work is being done. A wise delegator will therefore ensure that the task parameters are carefully defined, so that the delegatee cannot unilaterally make decisions which prejudice a successful outcome, and that there is periodic monitoring to ensure that the work is being carried out in the agreed fashion. It may be that this monitoring can also be delegated, e.g., the delegatee may be required to produce regular reports to a committee, but the delegator needs to keep contact with the progress of the work, so that she can answer for it to her superiors.

RESPONSIBILITY. Delegation implies giving to the delegatee the power to make all the decisions needed for success. Since the delegator remains accountable for the outcomes of the task, it is very important that the boundaries of responsibility are clearly defined, but once this has been done, the delegatee should be allowed to do the work without any interference. Far too often, the delegator is unable to do this, and friction arises, leading to:

  • demotivation of staff, who complain that they are not allowed to do anything without supervision and interference,
  • lack of learning opportunities for staff, since they are unable to make their own mistakes and to learn from them,
  • a reluctance on the part of staff to undertake additional tasks because they are a source of discontent.

In delegating a task, therefore, it is important to make absolutely clear:

  • the policy framework within which the task is being delegated,
  • the precise outcomes required (see above),
  • how far the delegatee can interpret events and how far they must conform to set rules,
  • what circumstances would require reference to a superior for authorisation,
  • what form the accountability monitoring will take.

Since, when you delegate a task, you are asking someone else to do your work for you, it is only fair that they should also be given the resources you would have to do it. This transfer of resources is called authority. Probably the most frequent complaint made against managers is that they give responsibility without authority, i.e., they require a subordinate to undertake a task without transferring the means to succeed. In order to delegate effectively, therefore, it is critical that you should transfer to the delegatee:

  • the financial resources needed. A major task should carry its own budget, therefore, and the delegatee should have the power to spend money as required by the task, without constant reference to a superior. Since accountability remains with the superior, however, it may be necessary to have periodic reviews of the financial situation to ensure that the terms of the authorisation are being met; this can be achieved by a requirement to submit accounts on a regular basis.
  • the material resources needed, e.g., materials, accommodation, technical aids. Clearly there are limits on availability, but within these, the delegatee should have all the back-up which would be available to the delegator is the task were not delegated.
  • technical support in the form of secretarial assistance, technical services, etc. The degree to which these are available needs to be clarified, e.g., the number of hours of secretarial help that can be called upon,
  • political power in the form of the authority to require other personnel to participate in the task exactly as they would if the delegator were to do it. This would enable the delegatee to form committees, to run pilot projects, to delegate sub-tasks, etc., and to represent the delegator to outside agencies. This is probably the authority that most senior managers find difficulty in delegating, and I am familiar with some who require all mail to be signed personally, or to brief their delegatees on what they are allowed to say at meetings with outside agencies; such interference can only weaken the authority of the delegatee and lead to conflict.

Following-Up a Delegated Task
Good leaders use delegation as a means of developing their staff's expertise, and an important element in this is the follow-up to a completed task or the progress review of an ongoing one. In either case, the delegatee is entitled to receive feedback from you in the following ways:

  • public acknowledgement of the work done. This can be in the form of a statement to other colleagues through a staff bulletin or by announcement at a staff meeting.
  • personal thanks for having done your work for you.
  • praise for aspects of the work which were particularly well done. This is extremely important because of the motivation which it creates, yet it is not often done.
  • constructive feedback on aspects of the work which you, with your greater experience, might have done differently. This is not the same as criticism! It entails making suggestions about how the work might be done differently if it were to be repeated and allows time for discussion of any aspects of the work, so that the delegatee might learn from the experience.

An Example of a Delegated Role
Below is an example of a job description, taken from a school in Wales, which encapsulates the principles outlined above. How many of your staff have such an explicit statement?


The incumbent will, in addition to the teaching duties and other duties agreed from time to time with the Headteacher exercise the following functions:



      1. To develop, in association with the Pastoral Committee, appropriate programmes of tutorial support for pupils.
      2. To coordinate the work of tutorial staff throughout the school in cooperation with the Heads of Year.
      3. To report to the Headteacher through the Senior Management Team on all matters relating to the pastoral support of pupils.
      4. To liase with Heads of Department in providing support for staff and pupils in ensuring optimum conditions for pupil learning, e.g., in assessment, option choices, work experience etc.
      5. To prepare, in association with the Pastoral Committee, and for approval by the Senior Management Team, appropriate rules for pupil behaviour.
      6. To organise the supervision of pupils outside normal classroom hours in order to maintain approved school rules for pupil behaviour.
      7. To organise an appropriate system for counselling support of pupils and their parents in all matters concerning pupil academic and personal progress.
      8. To act as arbiter in disputes between staff and pupils, and/or their parents.
      9. To liase with external support agencies in maintaining good community relations, in supporting pupils and their parents, and in maintaining the school ethos and reputation.
      10. To maintain, in liaison with the administrative staff, appropriate records concerning the welfare and support of pupils, as agreed with the Senior Management Team.


      1. The Deputy Head (pastoral) will have full rights of membership of the Senior Management Team and the following other committees:
      2. (S)he will be able to call on the services of administrative staff, through the Administrative Officer, for secretarial help for up to hours per week.
      3. (S)he will have full authority to spend such monies as are allocated out of school funds, subject only to a monthly review of accounts.
      4. (S)he will have full authority to deploy staff, and to delegate responsibilities to them, within the staffing policy laid down by the Senior Management Team.
      5. (S)he will have the right to discuss with the Headteacher any matters concerned with these duties and to seek his/her support in the proper exercise of the responsibilities delegated above.



      1. In all these matters, the Deputy Head (Pastoral) will be accountable solely to the Headteacher.


Questions to ask yourself about delegation
Give truthful answers to these questions and then think carefully (i) what causes your response and (ii) what are its implications. You might like to discuss your answers with colleagues.

  1. Do you operate a policy of 'if you want a job done well, do it yourself'?
  2. Do you try to do everything yourself?
  3. Would you trust your senior staff to do your job as well as you, given time and support? If not, why not?
  4. Could some of your staff do it better? How do you feel about that?
  5. Do you do a great deal more work than your colleagues? Why?
  6. Do you feel stressed? What are the reasons?
  7. How would you feel if you had spare time? What would you do with it?
  8. Do you give others jobs you dislike doing?
  9. If you were ill for six months, could your next-in-command do your job effectively? What does this tell you about your management style?
  10. Do you not delegate because some people might become too powerful ?
  11. Do you ask or tell staff to do tasks?
  12. Do you discuss with those staff precisely what the job entails, ask their views and negotiate what is expected of them?
  13. Do you give the delegatee your full powers to do the job?
  14. Do you inform others what authority you are giving the delegatee?
  15. Do you check up on delegatees? For what reasons? Are they valid?
  16. If the completed job meets your specifications would you implement it without modification?
  17. Do you ever take credit for the work done by junior staff?
  18. Are you jealous of any of your subordinates?
  19. How would you feel if you kept losing senior staff through promotion?
  20. Do you give adequate constructive feedback and praise?