5 Levels of High-Impact Delegation

By Mack Story

In a culture of discipline, people do not have jobs; they have responsibilities.”—Jim Collins

Delegation 101: Delegating what to do makes you responsible. Delegating what to accomplish allows others to become responsible. As Stephen R. Covey taught me so well, “Never delegate methods, only results.”

High-impact leaders understand delegation is a tool for growing their teams, strengthening relationships, transferring responsibility to others who are closer to the work being done, and allowing those closer to the problems to take ownership for solving problems.

I’ve learned to be very effective at delegating. Not the "do this and do that" kind of delegation most people think of when they hear the word delegation. That isn’t leading people; that’s directing people. That’s low-impact delegation, and it doesn’t promote growth, responsibility, or ownership. High-impact delegation empowers individuals and teams to thrive. It’s about growth and development, not authority.

Let’s take a look at five levels of high-impact delegation:

Wait for Directions

No growth. No respect. No responsibility.

A low-impact leader simply tells the person or team what to do. The leader may not even be aware when the task is finished. Either way, when they’re finished, they wait for directions from the leader. They keep waiting until they are told what to do next. This is absolutely the lowest level of delegation—and unfortunately, it's the most common. It’s quick, efficient, and very effective in the short-term. Low-impact leaders love it. But it’s very ineffective and an absolute waste of time in the long-term, and high-impact leaders avoid it.

Ask: "What’s Next?"

No growth. No respect. Only a very small amount of responsibility.

The low-impact leader instructs the person or team to ask "What’s next?" once the task is completed. What small responsibility does the person or team have? There is no growth and development at this level. The leader will see a slight increase in productivity because she is able to keep the person or team busy without as much waiting. However, the leader still does all of the thinking and is responsible for determining what the person or team should and will do next. At least, the leader knows when they have completed their last assigned task. Then, another task can be assigned.

Recommend a Course of Action

Growth happens. Respect is mutual. Responsibility is transferred.

Everything changes at this level. Thinking is now a shared responsibility. The leader values the person or team’s experience, their opinions, and their decision-making ability. The responsibility for thinking, determining, and suggesting the next task is transferred to the person or team carrying out the task. They now must think before approaching the leader with a recommendation.

The leader is now in a support role growing and developing the person or team. As the leader learns to trust their thinking and decision making, he is able to move them to higher levels of delegation. If he doesn’t yet trust them, he can continue asking questions to help shape and refine their thought process and understanding of the bigger picture.

Do It and Report Immediately

Additional, but somewhat limited, responsibility is transferred.

The leader has more trust and confidence in the person or team and allows them to accept the responsibility of choosing—and then completing—the next task without support. Then, they notify the leader of what has been done before taking the next additional action.

Own It and Report Routinely

Full responsibility has been transferred.

At this level, the person or team reports to the leader at predetermined intervals, such as the end of a project; a specific number of days, weeks, months; or when the person or team feels it is necessary. The leader trusts the person or team completely and is confident in their ability to make the right decisions.

As Ken Allen commented, “Rarely is delegation failure the subordinate’s fault. Maybe you picked the wrong person for the job, didn’t train, develop, or motivate sufficiently.” While I don’t agree with the term subordinate, I do agree with the rest of Ken’s sentiment. Effective delegation is the leader’s responsibility.

This post is adapted from Blue-Collar Kaizen: Leading Lean & Lean Teams.

Mack Story will be presenting a session at the ATD TDI conference. For more information, click here.


5 Levels of High-Impact Delegation