Delegation is the practice of turning over work-related tasks and/or authority to employees or subordinates. Small business owners often have difficulty with delegation for a variety of reasons, from concerns about the abilities of subordinates to long-standing "hands-on" management habits (a common characteristic of successful entrepreneurs). Indeed, "businesses founded on the creative talents of the owner often struggle with [delegation] because the success of the enterprise depends on the owner's style," wrote Linda Formichelli in Nation's Business. But small business consultants warn that owners who do not learn to delegate responsibilities and tasks often end up stunting their company's growth.
The Need for Effective Delegation Practices
"Many managers think of delegation as a task—an activity to be carried out and forgotten. In reality, delegation is a process that makes up a critical component of successful management," wrote Janet Houser Carter in Supervisory Management. "To get work done with and through others, a manager must regularly give authority to his or her staffers. This shows staffers that the manager has faith in their abilities—which is what makes delegation such a powerful motivational tool."
A propensity for micromanagement—or nanomanagement, as it is sometimes called when applied to a small business firm—can have a deleterious impact on a company in a variety of ways. Moreover, many analysts contend that a lack of delegation can be particularly detrimental to the fortunes of smaller businesses. "In small, entrepreneurial companies, micromanagement by one person—typically the owner—can be especially growth-inhibiting because it can have a proportionately larger sweep through the firm than micro-management by one executive in a large company," wrote Formichelli. Business consultants thus counsel their clients to practice sensible delegation of tasks to their employees—even in instances where they might not do as good a job initially. "Employees can't learn unfamiliar tasks if they never get the chance to learn and practice them," noted Carter. "In the short term, it may make sense to do it yourself; over the long term, however, you save more time by showing others how to do the job."
Of course, not all tasks or responsibilities should be delegated to employees. Small business owners need to take care of basic strategic and planning issues themselves, and other management duties—conflict resolution, performance evaluations, etc.—should be delegated judiciously.
Business experts cite a number of specific problems that are often associated with companies that do not effectively delegate. These include:
- Poor employee morale—An inability or refusal to delegate can have a corrosive impact on the morale of good employees that want to contribute their talents to the business in a meaningful way. "Delegating work to subordinates helps to develop them for their own career advancement as well as improve their management skills," wrote W.H. Weiss in Supervision.
- Burnout—Even the most talented, ambitious, and energetic entrepreneurs are apt to run out of gas if they insist on tackling all major aspects of a company's operation. Some small business owners can manage all or most important tasks for the early life of a company. Indeed, some small businesses—especially single-person enterprises like freelance graphics design or editorial services—may be able to handle all significant aspects of a company's operation for years on end. But for the vast majority of small and mid-sized businesses enjoying a measure of growth, owners sooner or later must face the reality that they cannot undertake all duties and responsibilities.
- Misallocation of Personal Resources—Small business owners and entrepreneurs who do not delegate often run the risk of using too much of their time on routine tasks and not enough time on vital aspects of the company's future, such as strategic planning, long-range budgeting, and marketing campaigns.
- Damage to Company Image—Business owners who do not empower their employees, insisting instead on attending to all relevant aspects of his or her business themselves, run the risk of inadvertently suggesting to customers and vendors that the company's workforce is not competent and/or trustworthy.
- Damage to Company Health—This should be the bottom-line consideration of all entrepreneurs running their own business. If micromanagement is slowing processing of work orders, hindering development of new marketing efforts, or otherwise causing bottlenecks in any areas of a company's operation, then it may be eating away at the company's fundamental financial well-being.
Small business owners are encouraged to evaluate whether they are perhaps falling into the trap of micro-management. Consultants and entrepreneurs cite the following as major warning signs:
- Taking work home in the evening or working long hours of overtime
- Failure to give important tasks the amount of attention that they warrant
- Basic company documents (like business plans) are not updated for long periods
- Excessive amounts of time spent going over work already completed by employees
- Completing important tasks with little time to spare (or a day or two late)
- Spending inordinate amounts of time on relatively unimportant or routine jobs
- Vacations assume mythic status
- Unhappy employees
- Unhappy family members
Keys to Effective Delegation
Effective delegation is ultimately predicated on ensuring that the company's workforce is sufficiently talented and motivated to take on the responsibilities that are delegated to them. "New entrepreneurs often have difficulty figuring out what kind of workers to hire," remarked Formichelli. "If the wrong people are hired, they require more training and supervision, which invites nanomanagement." Sound hiring practices and adequate training are thus universally regarded as major factors in establishing a healthy system of delegation. Once those aspects have been addressed, there are other considerations that can be studied as well. These include:
- Work Environment—Establish a positive work environment where employees are not paralyzed by fear of failure or dismissive of tasks that they think is beneath them. Owners and managers need to emphasize tools of motivation and communication to nourish employee enthusiasm.
- Plan for Delegation—A company that is armed with a strong, clear vision of its future—and the role that its employees will play in that future—is far more likely to be successful than the business that does not plan ahead.
- Review Responsibilities—Business owners and managers need to objectively examine which tasks that they have previously taken care of can be delegated to others. "Reserve for yourself those tasks which require the experience, skill, and training which only you possess," wrote W.H. Weiss in the Supervisor's Standard Reference Handbook.
- Selection of Appropriate Employees for New Responsibilities—As every personnel manager knows, some members of the work force are better suited to take on new responsibilities than others. When reviewing potential candidates to take on additional responsibilities, business owners should consider level of employee motivation and ambition, skill sets, level of allegiance to the company, and emotional maturity.
- Established Policies—Detailed manuals of policies and procedures can go far toward eliminating the uncertainties that hamstring some delegation efforts.
- Prepare for Bumps in the Road—Even the best-planned delegation efforts can go awry, leading to short-term productivity/profitability losses. Indeed, risk is an inherent element of the delegation process, and some errors or misjudgments may occur as workers adjust to their new responsibilities. "Employees need to be reassured that the manager will be there to offer assistance or clarification, and that mistakes during the learning period are to be expected," said Carter. "Mistakes should be viewed as opportunities to teach, not punish."
- Training—Delegation of tasks and responsibilities is far more likely to be successful if the employees have the knowledge necessary to fulfill their new duties. "The fact that no one has the skills to complete a task you are handling doesn't mean you should avoid delegation—it means you should train," wrote Alice Bredin in Los Angeles Business Journal. "While building the skills of an employee requires an investment of time, that investment will pay off."
- Communication—"Be clear and concise when delegating," said Weiss. "Right from the beginning you must clarify what decisions you are delegating and what you are reserving for yourself. Delegating fails when the person to whom you have delegated a task fails to perform it or makes a decision beyond the scope of authority granted." Conversely, delegation can also fail if the business owner hands off a responsibility, but does not give his or her employee the necessary level of authority to execute that responsibility. "If you overlook this, you may cause the person delegated to suffer frustration and stress because he or she was given an assignment yet not given the authority and power needed to accomplish it properly," wrote Weiss in Supervision.
- Provide advisory role—Small business owners should make sure that they keep lines of communication open at all times after delegating responsibilities. Employee questions and uncertainties about their new responsibilities are perfectly natural, so owners should make themselves available for questions and maintain a nonjudgmental, helpful stance.
Ultimately, small business owners need to recognize that delegation can help a business grow and prosper, and that good employees, when used intelligently, can be a significant advantage in the marketplace. "The manager who wants to learn to delegate more should remember this distinction," wrote Thomas S. Bateman and Carl P. Zeithaml in Management: Function and Strategy. "If you are not delegating, you are merely doing things; the more you delegate, the more you are truly building and managing an organization."
Bateman, Thomas S., and Carl P. Zeithaml. Management: Function and Strategy. Irwin, 1990.
Bredin, Alice. "Delegating Tasks Can Free Up Time to Pursue Growth." Los Angeles Business Journal. 20 November 2000.
Carter, Janet Houser. "Minimizing the Risks from Delegation." Supervisory Management. February 1993.
Formichelli, Linda. "Letting Go of the Details." Nation's Business. November 1997.
Kelly, Kevin. "Sharing the Load: Sure, I Needed to Delegate More. But I Had to Learn How Far I Could Go." Fortune. 28 November 2005.
Pollock, Ted. "Delegation." Supervision. August 2005.
Weiss, W.H. "The Art and Skill of Delegating." Supervision. September 2000.