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How to master the art of delegation

When it comes to delegating work to staff, managers rarely hit a happy medium. Instead, they tend to fall at the ends of the spectrum: those who do not delegate enough and those who delegate too much.

But by far, it is the under-delegators who are greatest in number. And it is under-delegation that most causes employees to lose interest in their jobs.

Lack of delegation is one of the leading causes of job dissatisfaction, because it robs staff of the opportunity to take on new challenges. When there aren’t any challenges to pursue, staff wind up twiddling their thumbs or taking other jobs on the side because their work is not meaningful.

Why some managers don’t delegate

For the most part, the managers who fail to delegate are perfectionists who won’t accept anything below their own perfectionist standards. They want to make all the decisions and have all the control and the power. They want things done exactly their own way.

For those managers, there is only one solution: to learn to get along with acceptable standards. They need to set a goal of getting things accomplished adequately, not perfectly. Do that, and life gets easier.

Consider the example of designing a patient satisfaction survey. If a manager demands that the questions be phrased exactly one way and that the results be statistically correct, the staff will never be able to put the survey together.

Get real. Ask what is important. Is the goal to calculate the responses down to a fraction of a point, or to identify the office’s strengths and weaknesses?

To become a delegator, aim for 80 percent of the target instead of 100 percent of it. Perfection kills initiative. When a manager demands perfection in every job, staff have no reason to act on their own and so they wait to be told to do something.

Here’s what to say

There is an art to delegation, however. It is not just a matter of dumping work on staff. People want to feel they are being singled out for a new challenge, not that they are simply being handed an extra task.

To delegate effectively, the manager first has to explain to the staffer that she or he has been specially selected for the job. For example: “Everybody knows we have to do more with less time. Ever since you came on board, I have been impressed with your ability to learn quickly and I was wondering if you would be willing to help me out on a project.”

Stop there. This introduction tests the water and shows whether the staffer is willing to take on the work. You hope the response will be “Sure. What type of project is it?”

At this point, outline the goals: “We need to design a patient survey that shows A, B, and C. Is that something you are interested in and can help me with?”

Provide details

Then explain the job. Specify what work needs to be done, the amount of time it will take, and when the project needs to be completed. Explain how closely you will be monitoring the work and what the parameters are, perhaps that the survey needs to cover certain areas.

Remember: Delegation does not mean handing over a project and letting someone run wild with it. You need to explain to the employee at the outset what that person’s responsibilities are, how much authority he or she has, and what the expected results are as well as what the limits are—what can and cannot be done.

For example, one manager let a staffer have too much freedom planning the practice’s summer picnic, and the usual potluck barbecue event in a public park turned into a costly pig roast at an expensive venue. You need to set some boundaries.

Offer a meaningful reward

Offer a reward or a motivation. And here’s where your intuition comes in, because you need to play to that person’s motivation.

Some people are motivated by being in charge of things. Others want a close professional relationship with the manager. Some others want recognition.

So give the person something attractive to work toward. Tell the staffer he or she will be responsible for the entire project or that doing the work makes that person the manager’s right arm or that the staffer can present the finished project to the rest of the office. If the person is motivated by money, and if the work is significant, offer a bonus at the end of the project.

The key is to offer whatever that person enjoys and most wants to achieve in the job.

Knowing each person’s driving force means knowing the staff.

Mind your error comfort zone

How can you tell when the delegation level is too high and when it’s too low? A good measure is the office’s comfort level for mistakes. When mistakes are too numerous, there could be too much delegation. But if the office is making progress and satisfying the patients, the delegation is likely at the right level.


No one can control every element of the practice’s operations. As manager, you have to decide what can be done less perfectly and then live with the results. There is just not enough time in the day for perfection.

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