The Art of Delegating

Assigning tasks to others is a key managerial skill


A colleague of mine spent a tough first year adjusting to being promoted to "acting manager." Recently, though, she told me how much she enjoyed managing her team of seven professionals. What had changed? She had learned how to delegate, and now believes that acquiring this one managerial skill was crucial for her career.

Another engineer I know, Ray, has 20 years' experience and a team that he supervises, but he wasn't keeping track of what his people were doing and wasn't deploying them effectively. As a result, Ray was being held back from a promotion. His problem? He hadn't learned how to delegate work to his people.

Can delegating really make such a difference? Yes, it can. There comes a time in every engineer's career when he or she needs to start letting go and assigning tasks to subordinates or to contractors. Often, this is work that the engineer could still do, given the time, but now he or she should focus on the higher-value managerial skills needed to accomplish the work through the efforts of others. In short, being able to assign work is an important way to leverage your own effectiveness.

Delegating isn't easy, especially for engineers. I believe most young engineers tend to enjoy working alone as they go through school, perhaps having selected the profession because it allows them to work alone without having to deal with others.

But once you appreciate the importance of delegating and learn the principles of how to do it, it does get easier. Delegating involves four basic steps: clearly describing the end product and when it is needed, getting comfortable with the idea of other people doing the work, keeping track of things, and giving constructive feedback. Let's take a look at each step.

Clearly describe what needs to be done and by when. Most of us, even when we become managers, are hesitant to ask someone else to do work that we could do. One day we're doing certain tasks, and the next we're supposed to ask others to do those same tasks. So perhaps we feel a bit guilty; after all, what are we doing?

The fact is, people who report to you expect to be guided and are not going to blame you for "shirking" work. The key is to determine what you want others to accomplish and when you need them to complete the task. Be clear as to what is expected, and give your subordinate the opportunity to discuss the general approach or any other issue before launching into the work. Write down what you've agreed to (in a short e-mail, for instance), as this will help get the person started in the right direction and minimize any disagreement later. One manager I know reviews progress a day or two after assigning the work if she's unsure that the person will tackle the task effectively, to make sure that the person doesn't stray too far from the assignment.

Accept that the work will not be done exactly as you would have done it. No one completes the same task in the same way. This does not necessarily make another person's work wrong or inferior; in fact, it may be better than what you could have done and be a credit to your managerial skills. Beware of micromanaging or seeming to look over another's shoulder constantly. But by the same token, don't allow a subordinate to repeatedly ask questions for reassurance; instead, have him or her brief you on progress at reasonable milestones, depending on the scope of the task.

Keep track of delegated work. A critical role for managers is to know what their people are doing at any given time and when the work is due. That means developing a system for monitoring delegated tasks, which can be separate from elaborate project management charts covering major tasks. Ray, the engineer I mentioned earlier, needed to develop a simple spreadsheet to keep track of the tasks that his team was doing; he designed one linked to overall project schedules. Then he had to follow up to make sure the work was getting done. Having such a system doesn't just help the manager; it also gives the workers confidence that their boss is on top of things.

Give constructive feedback and criticism. When giving feedback for delegated work, try first to be as positive as possible about the work the person has done. For example, cite good, substantive points or the timeliness of the work's completion. Any criticism should relate directly to the initial scope and deadline for the work; if those were clearly outlined, you'll have a basis to discuss the submitted work and any further work needed.

Let's close by looking at delegating from the opposite perspective: when others delegate work to you. Do you understand what is being asked of you? Are you aware of the deadlines? Are you comfortable with asking your boss questions that will clarify anything that's vague? If not, then try some of the delegating tips you've just learned here. Delegating is a two-way street, so the two parties need to agree in order to produce what is needed in a timely manner.

The essence of delegating lies in recognizing that at some point in your career, you can no longer do it all and that to manage people and projects, you'll need to focus on using your higher-level skills. Others in your organization will look to you for guidance and direction in accomplishing the work. How well you learn to delegate will indicate your readiness to take on more responsibility and advance in your career.

Contributing Editor Carl Selinger, an aviation and transportation engineer, has given his seminar on the soft, nontechnical skills, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," throughout the United States. His book of the same title was published by Wiley-IEEE Press in 2004; more information is available at