Do You Make These 3 Delegation Mistakes?

by  David Dye  |  Leadership Development
Do You Make These 3 Delegation Mistakes?

If you’ve been leading for any length of time, you know you should delegate. My earliest leadership memory is of delegating household chores to my younger brother and sisters when I was eleven.

Even then, I knew I should delegate…and you know it now.

You know you should delegate because:

  • You can’t do it all yourself.
  • Other people have talents and abilities beyond yours.
  • When you share responsibility, it helps your people to grow.

You know you should delegate, but it’s a struggle to do it well.

Three Delegation Mistakes Most Managers Make

In my work with thousands of leaders I consistently see three delegation mistakes that lead to countless hours of lost time, frazzled nerves, and frustrated leaders. If you make these mistakes, you’re not alone. I have done them all more than once.

The good news is that when you address these mistakes, your people grow, your team gets more done, and you have more time for the work only you can do.

Mistake #1: Delegate process, not outcome.

Effective leaders delegate the outcome. Here are a few examples:

  • We need a new product prototype that meets these engineering specifications…
  • The task is to come up with a solution to the problem where we do both x and y.
  • Your team needs to be trained on the process so they can complete it accurately within ten minutes each month.

When you delegate, be clear about the outcome. What is it they are responsible to achieve? Don’t delegate the process – that’s micromanaging or training. If they’ve never learned how to do something, it’s training. If it’s training, call it that. Delegate outcomes, not process.

Mistake #2: Don’t Define Success

Effective leaders are clear about what success looks like.

One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.
~ Quintilian

Be clear about what a successful outcome looks like, feels like, smells like; what it does and when it is due.

Many leaders, especially the Type A driven folks, delegate a task and mentally expect it to be completed instantly if not sooner but don’t give their people an actual due date. Then they’re frustrated that it’s not done.

When you delegate, be clear about what success looks like, why the task is important, and when it needs to happen.

Mistake #3: No Accountability

This is the killer mistake – the one that makes so many leaders give up on delegation or to do it, but with ulcer-causing frustration.

Have you ever delegated a task, then three weeks after it was due you haven’t heard a word and wonder what happened?

We’ve all been there. Now you’re frustrated, upset with the employee, have to carve out more time to figure out what’s happened, and everything is behind schedule. You don’t have time for that.

When you have to chase after assignments, the missing ingredient is accountability. Effective leaders build accountability into the assignment; they don’t leave it to chance.

To build accountability into the assignment, schedule a mutual appointment where you will receive the assignment back from the other person.

For example: “This is due June 30. Let’s meet for 15 minutes at 3:00 pm on June 30. The agenda for the meeting is for you to share the final product/findings/outcome and we’ll discuss follow up and questions.”

Both of you schedule the meeting on your respective calendars. The principle is that when you delegate, there comes a scheduled time where the other person completes the assignment and returns it to you. That’s built-in accountability.

If the project is a longer assignment, you might schedule a status update 1/3 of the way through where they are responsible to share their approach, early obstacles, and clarifications.

Don’t leave accountability to chance. No matter how responsible your people might be, if you don’t clearly define how the task or project will be returned to you, other work can get in the way. You might assign something else. They might face competing priorities from another leader.

Schedule a time on both of your calendars where you look each other in the eye…and your days of chasing missed deadlines are over.

Your Turn

Remember, delegation is a powerful tool to get more done and help your people grow – but only when you delegate outcomes, clearly define what success looks like, and mutually schedule the follow up.

Leave us a comment and share your delegation tips – in particular: How do your effective leaders delegate to you? Be the leader you want your boss to be.

Tell us more about your experiences with delegation…

About The Author

Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Page Cole  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Loved the insight… it made me do some serious introspection about my own delegation skills, or the lack thereof. I think one of my greatest challenges in delegation is the accountability aspect. I believe in staff, challenge and delegate, and don’t feel a need to micromanage the process. But holding them accountable has always made me feel like I’m the bad guy. I need to shift my thinking, I think, to remember that NOT holding them accountable is the bad thing. If I’m ever going to expect my team members to grow, they need to be stretched. They also need to be held accountable if they don’t follow through or do what they were supposed to.

I have had lots of great leaders in my life, and as I reflect, the best ones were ones that I knew would hold me accountable and deal directly with me. I want to be one of those leaders.

A question: When having those moments of accountability, should location of that conversation be an important consideration? By that I mean, should those conversations be a “can you come to my office” conversation, or a “Hey, I dropped by your office/desk to follow up with you about…”. Does that impact the seriousness of the level of accountability?

David Dye  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply


Thanks for the reflective comment. You said alot here: “But holding them accountable has always made me feel like I’m the bad guy. I need to shift my thinking, I think, to remember that NOT holding them accountable is the bad thing.”

That is so important. One way to look at it is that you don’t give over responsibility when you delegate…you share it. So you’re still responsible for it at the end of the day.

As for location of accountability conversations, I try not to have one location become associated with ‘bad stuff’. My cat hates her cat carrier because the only time she sees it is for trips to the veterinarian. Culture, not cat carriers. (Definitely one on one for most of those accountability conversations, however.)

Page Cole  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Thanks David! I appreciate the encouragement… I created a poster to hang near my desk that says,
“You don’t give over responsibility
when you delegate…
You share it.”

Fantastic reminder to step up to the responsibilities of leadership, but do it WITH my team, not FOR them, and not AT them.

Have a great day!

John E. Smith  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hi, David – great post:)

I remember (long ago and far away) as a young leader, i believed that being a leader meant being able to and actually doing it all. I was finally brought up short by a more seasoned leader with a simple question for me: “Are you working harder than anyone else to get this done?”

My first thought was “Of course, I’m leading the work”, but after some quiet discussion, I realize that I was just doing, not leading. Your three elements (and pitfalls for the unwary or unwise) are right on target.

The thing I continue to struggle with is the inclination to not just describe the desired outcome, but to describe in detail how I think that outcome should be achieved. Many will happily let me do this, since it takes the employee completely off the hook and gives them a perfect excuse – “I just did what you told me to do.”

This delegation thing is a bit tricky, but your thinking helps us all understand what to do and what not to do a little better – appreciate your sharing:)


David Dye  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply


I resemble that remark :) That is my challenge area as well.

Thanks for your contribution!


Gord MacDonald  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Great insight. Enjoyed reading the article. The one comment I have is around accountability; If you are delegating a project to the employee, you must be absolutely clear about where the accountability lies in completing the deliverable….. the employee or the manager?? If this message is unclear, perhaps the employee may assume it is their accountability to complete and now have their own established timeline because they think they “own” it…..I guess a lot of it does come down to clear communication.
Have a good day

David Dye  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hi Gord,

Thanks for the clarification. Yes, the delegee is responsible for their work and to deliver what was expected at the time agreed upon. The leader is responsible to ensure the work is completed and receive it back. Both are accountable, though for different aspects.

Take care,


Sergio Rodrigues  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

In the example above, related to accountability, wouldn’t be better to schedule the meeting prior to the deadline (June 30)?

David Dye  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hi Sergio,

Yes, scheduling ahead is often beneficial depending on the context, difficulty of assignment, and so forth.

Take care,


Paul LaRue  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply


I always learn from your posts my friend! This one seemed to have resonated with a number of us.

When reading the first point, “delegate outcome” I knew I heard that recently. It was in Mark Miller’s new book “Chess Not Checkers” that he mentioned “assigning outcomes”. It was in the context of good leaders adding value to their people rather than extracting from them. It was nice to hear that point stated in two different angles.

Great article David. Keep making an impact!!

David Dye  |  20 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Thanks Paul!

I love the concept of leaders adding value. You’ve given me a good reason to move Mark’s new book to the top of the list (as if it required another one :)

Take care,


Jai Thampi  |  21 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hi David,

Really insightful post. Thank you.

One thing I’d like to comment about Mistake #1 is that delegating the outcome could also have a downside. The more they focus on the outcome, managers tend to stipulate what they want done and how they want it done – especially when they are under tight deadlines. For instance, I have seen managers handing over an Excel template to their team and asking them to “fill it up”. The team might have a better idea to improve the overall process and deliver a better outcome. But the way the task has been delegated to them, it stifles their creativity and prevents them from further learning and scope for improvement. Managers should also keep that in mind.

David Dye  |  22 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hello Jai and thank you for the contribution. It seems to me that what you describe is a variation on delegating process and not really outcome. Your caution to not allow tight deadlines and pressure to stifle better solutions is well-heeded!

Take care,


Steve L. Wintner, AIA Emeritus  |  22 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Hello again David, thank you for your excellent post about one of my favorite subjects. The three mistakes you cite by those who delegate are wonderful additions to those I have always embraced. The one that resonates most with me, as it seems to have with Gord, is ‘Accountability’.
It is my perspective that ALL companies would benefit by embracing and implementing the concept of accountability as the foundation of its daily operations. Accountability, in its simplest form is getting everyone in the firm, from the top-down, to ‘pull in the same direction’. That can only accrue to greater effectiveness and efficiency; two components that play a huge role in any company’s long-term success.
Stephen R. Covey, in his best-selling ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, includes a chapter on Delegation. Covey separates the process of delegation into two categories: ‘Gopher’ and ‘Stewardship’. Rather than take the space to explaain, I would encourage anyone who has not read the book to at least look at this section to get Covey’s full insight on the topic. It made a huge difference in my management approach to this critically important process and its inseparable connection to ‘being willing’ to be held accountable for whatever our assigned responsibility is for the work to be done.

David Dye  |  22 Apr 2015  |  Reply

Thanks Steve – definitely second your reading recommendations!

I believe the healthiest way to look at accountability is that of keeping our mutual agreements to one another. As you say…full alignment, pulling in the same direction – and so accountability flows in all directions. Team to leader, leader to team, team to team, etc.

Thanks for your contribution!


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