Why, How, and How Not to Delegate: Some Hints for Home and Church
August 1979

“Why, How, and How Not to Delegate: Some Hints for Home and Church,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 12

Leadership at Home and Church

Why, How, and How Not to Delegate:

Some Hints for Home and Church

Perhaps no leadership principle has been more widely misunderstood than delegation. It is common to hear comments like these about a leader who is overloaded with work: “He ought to delegate more” or “Why doesn’t she learn how to delegate?” The assumption is that all there is to delegation is turning work over to someone else and suddenly being free from that responsibility.

Any good leader knows, however, that delegation won’t necessarily give him more free time immediately. In the long run, effective delegation should give the leader more time for other matters, but in the short time frame, it may involve an even greater time commitment.

Assignments, projects, and areas of work

How can you make delegation a useful tool instead of an unwieldy burden? An important beginning point is understanding what’s involved in the task you’re delegating.

1. Assignments. An assignment is usually a clear, specific, single task given just once. Giving talks, presenting parts of lessons, and running errands are examples of assignments. When our sixteen-year-old son needed to be driven to an early-morning basketball practice, I asked one of the older boys if he would be responsible for handling this for me. This was a delegated assignment, a single activity, that relieved me of a task for one day.

Because assignments are one-time tasks, they usually lead only to limited development of new skills. However, an assignment may be the beginning of interest, training, or development in a new area.

2. Projects. A project is a larger, more complex set of tasks requiring more skills; but, like an assignment, it is usually not an on-going job.

For example, our bishop delegated to our high priests group leader the project of handling the ward banquet. This included making all arrangements for the food, tables, decorations, serving, and program. The quorum leader in turn made a number of assignments for those specific responsibilities.

When appropriate, parents should give children responsibility for entire projects. For example, children could be delegated projects like planning family home evening activities, doing the weekly grocery shopping, planning the menus for a week, or assessing the food storage supply—rather than just small assignments—“make your bed,” “take this back to the neighbor,” “pick up your coat,” “take out the garbage,” “set the table.”

Well-delegated projects should provide excellent growth opportunities to those given the responsibility. It is only the unwise leader or parent who is afraid to delegate out total projects and gives only assignments.

3. Areas of work. An area of work is a complex set of activities that will persist over time—not just a “one shot” assignment or project.

A delegated area of work may be formalized—built into a particular position or calling. The stake president may delegate responsibility for certain welfare farm activities to a particular high councilor; another may be given the program for single adults; still others are delegated the Young Men or Young Women programs, teacher development, sports activities, etc.

In other instances, areas of work are not formally built into callings or positions but are delegated out as the need arises. One father turned over to his oldest son the responsibility for keeping the family car in good repair. A teenage daughter was asked to accept the task of getting the family up every morning for scripture reading and prayer. Some families divide the housecleaning into areas of work and delegate to various family members the responsibility of keeping a particular part of the home clean.

One mother delegated the family marketing to her daughter. This meant the daughter was responsible for handling a rather large amount of money, for buying all the food, and for generally coordinating the buying with the family menus.

In areas of work there is a great opportunity for the one given the task to learn, to grow, and to relieve the leader or parent of the burden. But at first the instruction and training may actually take more of the leader’s time than doing the job himself.

Why leaders do or don’t delegate

Leaders delegate for two main reasons: (1) they lack the time, skill, or other resources to do the job; or (2) they wish to give someone else the growth opportunities that come with a particular responsibility and activity.

On the other hand, many leaders do not delegate because: (1) they can’t always rely on people to do the job the way they want it done; (2) it takes more time to show people how to do it than it does to do it themselves; (3) it is frustrating to delegate something and then not have it done the “right” way at the right time; (4) sometimes delegated tasks involve more problems and time, as people keep asking questions and complaining about the assignment.

Eliminating obstacles to effective delegation

It is possible to overcome these blocks to delegation, however. These suggestions can prove helpful:

1. Seek inspiration. Determine prayerfully who should receive particular assignments and what tasks to assign to particular people. Then both you and the person receiving the assignments can feel more committed to the arrangement.

2. Give challenging assignments. Sometimes leaders parcel out only the hard, boring, or uninteresting activities and keep the best for themselves. This means that the person receiving the tasks often does not see the work leading to any significant growth or improvement, and, in time, begins to resent and resist the task. If a child were delegated to always do the dishes after a family night and never had a chance to give the lesson, select the activity, or plan the dessert, he could easily become dissatisfied. A wise church or family leader periodically reviews what has been delegated to see how people feel about their assignments.

3. Clarify expectations. When one turns work over to another, he still retains a certain degree of responsibility. While a mother may delegate the family marketing to her daughter, she is still responsible for the family’s diet, nutrition, and meals, even if the daughter does a poor job marketing. It is important that the mother clarify what she expects—that she clearly explain the importance of shopping, the amount of money to be spent, when the marketing is to be done, and the quality of merchandise to be purchased. If these things are not clearly communicated, the daughter may unknowingly violate the expectations of the mother or the family, and then be scolded or punished for not doing what she never really understood.

4. Get a commitment. After explaining the importance of the task and identifying the objectives, the leader should give the person a chance to respond—to accept the assignment, project, or area of work and commit himself to accomplish it. A verbal response can do more than just help the person feel committed to his new assignment; it can also open the door for questions or clarifications and lead naturally to future follow-through.

5. Give training as needed. Often a new area of work is unfamiliar to the person receiving the assignment and he is therefore unable to immediately begin performing at a skilled level. To help him reach the desired level of performance, the leader may need to spend time giving adequate instructions and training. For example, when a priesthood holder is delegated the responsibility of home teaching, the leader should take the time to give clear and appropriate training. This might include a period of explanation as well as a joint home teaching experience to show him how effective home teaching is done. Without this preparation, the home teacher may do a poor job, frustrating everyone, and the quorum leader may never realize that he is part of the problem.

6. Follow-through. When a task has been delegated, the leader often assumes that he can sit back and let the work get done. But in fact, the work is not going to get done as it should unless he has a consistent program of follow-through. This includes taking time periodically to examine what has been done, assess the outcome, do some replanning, and perhaps give some additional training and coaching. Follow-through does not mean always checking up, but rather having times, mutually agreed upon, to review progress.

For example, if a teachers quorum committee, under the direction of a chairman, has been delegated the responsibility for a quorum skating party and food afterwards, the quorum advisor should first give clear instructions and then set dates when certain arrangements should be completed and reported to him. He should not wait until the day of the party and then frantically call everyone to see if all the arrangements have been made. Many programs fail because there is no planned method for stimulating or redirecting people with assignments. Also a lack of follow-through may be a signal to the person given the task that the leader has lost interest in the project or is no longer concerned. This may cause the assigned person to lose motivation.

7. Let go. While the leader should clarify expectations, give instructions or training, and follow through, it is unrealistic to expect the person receiving the assignment to carry it out exactly as the leader would if he were doing it himself. The leader must let go, allowing the other person the right to do the job consistent with his own skills, personality, style, and experience. It is terribly frustrating to be given a job and then be watched over, regulated, and directed by someone else who feels he must control everything to make sure it is done just as he wants it. The person doing the task cannot help but inject something of his own uniqueness into the work. This should be expected, allowed, and even appreciated. Hopefully, if the individual is going to grow in the assignment, he will begin to take over and perhaps do the job even better than the leader had imagined.

For instance, a Relief Society president may find that the counselor who is asked to conduct a meeting or supervise a project may do so in a different manner than she would. The counselor’s style may be equally effective and may even produce superior results if the president allows some freedom. But the counselor will never grow if the president exercises too much control, checking up too closely, hovering around so much that the counselor is afraid to do anything.

Delegation is not just a gimmick to get rid of work. It is a leadership strategy—a larger plan in which the leader is eventually relieved of certain activities and the person receiving tasks experiences growth and development in the new area of work. Effective delegation is the result of Serious planning, a clear explanation of what is involved, proper training, follow-through, and a willingness to let go.

  • William G. Dyer, a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University, serves as high priest quorum teacher in his Provo, Utah, ward.

Photography by Eric W. White