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How to Delegate Effectively: An Essential, Yet Overlooked Process in Growing a Small Business

Human Resources
Article
07/29/2019

Knowing how to delegate effectively is a critically important — yet sometimes overlooked — attribute of a successful business owner. That's because many small business owners typically wear multiple hats, not only acting as owner/manager but also filling the roles of employees who don't presently exist within the company. As a result, a small business owner often ends up being overworked and stretched too thin, running the risk of burnout, not to mention depriving the business of a badly needed strategic vision. To ensure that operations run smoothly and successfully, it's critical to develop effective delegation strategies.

The importance of delegation

Why is delegation so important? First and foremost, it frees up the business owner to attend to the most pressing tasks at hand rather than the daily operational issues that could better be left to someone else. Trying to do everything by yourself is a guaranteed path to professional burnout.

Knowing how to delegate work to employees is also a key leadership trait — and business owners are individuals who must be able to lead.

Reasons to delegate

In addition to those listed above, here are other key reasons to delegate:

  • There's no way your team can flourish if they're denied the chance to assume greater responsibilities.
  • Effective delegation may result in a skilled, confident team of employees, including those individuals who help ensure that, in the event you can't be present, your business will run smoothly.
  • Perhaps just as importantly, a company with a reputation for effectively delegating tasks and grooming employees for increased responsibility can become known as an employer of choice among talented job seekers.

Barriers to effective delegation

How many of the following excuses have you used (or heard others in your company use) as a reason not to delegate?

  • "I can't afford to hire another person, so I'll save money by doing it myself."
  • "If I want something done right, I just do it myself."
  • "I don't have the time to train someone because I'm swamped."
  • "I like to oversee things from start to finish to make sure it's done right."
  • "I wouldn't know where to start. Who would I give these responsibilities to?"
  • "Things would be easier if I could just clone myself."

While business owners and managers are superheroes to their company, they aren't superhuman. They aren't immune to everyday personal issues, and eventually they may need to take time away from the office and unplug.

Consider the following important questions:

  • What if something happened where I couldn't be in the office, or if I wasn't available?
  • Would the business run smoothly or suffer in my absence?
  • Whom do I trust to leave in charge?
  • What more should I do to ensure that the business continues to operate if I'm unavailable?

The problem with running such a tight ship is that it can't sail without a captain. You need a first mate, a plan B, a delegate: someone who can act as your representative, someone who a business owner or manager can entrust authority to.

Building management delegation skills

Why managers don't delegate often comes down to a simple reason: They, like business owners, may find it difficult to let go. Some like the feeling of being irreplaceable and fear for their job security when they're asked to review their own job description or delegate responsibilities to a subordinate. They may even enjoy those little day-to-day tasks.

It's important for you, as a business owner, to remove this major barrier to delegation and put those fears to rest. Allow a manager to see and be a part of the strategic vision. The time spent each day on administrative tasks could be better served managing and developing the staff.

Train managers to emphasize the delegation skills of clear communications (so employees understand what is expected of them), trust (reward employees who have already demonstrated sound knowledge by giving them more authority), and support (give employees the resources they need to handle the tasks you've assigned to them).

The benefits of delegation

There are many significant benefits of delegation for the owner, the employee, and the business itself. Broadly speaking, such benefits range from a stronger sense of empowerment among team members to a higher level of efficiency throughout the organization.

Delegation benefits for your business

Employees who carry out the responsibilities assigned to them give business owners greater bandwidth to spend time on strategy and the bigger picture. Delegation in management presents you with the precious gift of time — to step back from day-to-day operations and focus on where your business is today, where it needs to be tomorrow, and what decisions you have to make to get from here to there.

You can't do this type of key strategic thinking if you're mired in daily responsibilities. By moving those tasks to trusted employees, you can directly impact how and where your business needs to be.

Delegation benefits for your employees

You and your managers have key skills and knowledge worth sharing with employees. When such a transfer of knowledge takes place, you can improve employee engagement, helping them grow in their positions and undergo marked professional development. The same principle applies to teams of employees, who grow together with the experience gained by effective delegation in the workplace.

Employees who are trusted with key responsibilities may be much more likely to stay with your company than those who feel stuck in their jobs with nowhere to go. Nothing demonstrates your faith in an employee's abilities more than a willingness to entrust them with new tasks and objectives — particularly those you've previously reserved for yourself alone. That faith and trust can make all the difference in helping you effectively retain employees and avoid costly high turnover within the organization.

How can you delegate effectively?

To gain capacity and prevent burnout, business owners and managers must choose to move responsibilities from their own workload and entrust them to employees. However, this is often easier said than done; effort and forethought are needed.

Once business owners or managers have identified a need to delegate and what tasks should be delegated, they must be ready to let go. Here are valuable delegation strategies to consider:

  • Be patient and don't hover over employees, waiting for them to make a mistake.
  • Don't look for an opportunity to snatch back a nonessential function the moment someone fails to meet expectations.
  • Make sure not to bark orders, or throw additional responsibilities on staff members at the end of the workday.

Identify what stage of the business cycle your business is in

Broadly speaking, there are four phases of a traditional business cycle. They include:

  • Expansion, or growth period: This happens when demand for your product or service generates the need to hire additional employees. This often occurs during times of greater business activity and an uptick in consumer confidence.
  • Peak: Invariably, a strong economy reaches a plateau, or peak. Demand levels off, in turn causing employee recruitment to slow. This is often the phase during which businesses look for ways to increase profits (without a corresponding rise in prices) and may necessitate some degree of employee layoff.
  • Contraction: This is a time of generalized layoffs and downsizing among businesses. Less money is spent on product development, and other cost-saving strategies are implemented across the entire organization to keep the business afloat during a time of lessened consumer demand.
  • Recession: This is the accepted low point of a business cycle, where the key objective is keeping a business afloat. Priorities during this time generally focus on streamlining business processes, reducing workforce, and devising strategies to come up with new forms of revenue streams.

Where does delegation fit into this cycle? Again delegating tasks to trusted employees is most valuable during the expansion and peak periods. That's when the business owner and managers should do everything possible to strategize for the (inevitable) approach of the next phase and maximize their current position in the business life cycle — rather than get mired in day-to-day operations.

Adopting delegation strategies during these phases will likely provide the biggest payoff for any uncertainty that lies ahead. Knowing how to delegate effectively can also mean you have more clarity in determining who you keep on the payroll (i.e., trusted employees who handle key responsibilities) and those you must let go.

Create clear job descriptions for existing positions

As a best practice, business owners and managers should create job descriptions for all existing company positions. These job descriptions should outline essential job functions as well as all the little day-to-day tasks that the employee is expected to do. Are there enough tasks on a particular job description to create another position within the company? If so, what skill set would be needed to fill the position? Would a part-time or full-time employee be needed? How much can the company afford to pay? Should the company outsource?

If there are too many tasks under a certain position but not enough to warrant a new hire, could some of those tasks be delegated among the existing staff? Are there individuals among the current staff who could handle some of those responsibilities? Is there a staff member who has potential to grow within the organization if that person were trained to take on some additional responsibilities?

Delegate the task, not the method

One of the most important delegation strategies to remember is to assign the task, not the method. How you complete the task may be different from how someone else would approach the issue, but if the result is that the task is completed, and it's a job well done, then you have a win-win situation.

Use feedback loops to improve delegation

Solid, constructive feedback is essential to making delegation work. Such feedback is aimed to identify situations and challenges where delegating tasks to an employee didn't go as planned. Examine what happened — and what failed to happen — and share these insights with the employee in question. It's altogether likely that the employee won't make the same mistakes twice and might well exceed expectations the next time around.

At the same time, positive feedback is a valuable delegation skill and can be very effective in getting employee buy-in.

Bear in mind that a feedback loop means you're also inviting employee input about how delegation is working. Inviting employees to weigh in on the process can lead to greater trust and confidence on their part, and it's likely to provide you with more information to consider for future examples of delegation in the workplace.

The importance of delegation and its influence on employee retention is critical. Learn more about some tactics for retaining your workforce that can help the business’s long-term success.

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