How To Delegate

By Saul R. Moorehouse

If a person is to rise to any position of responsibility in life, he must embrace this principle of human engineering and never forget it: WE GET THINGS DONE THROUGH PEOPLE. It is not enough to be good with things; we must be good with people.

One of the biggest fallacies today in promoting people to positions of importance is our belief that their proven excellence in dealing with things will also apply in the field of dealing with people. This is a costly mistake and one made much too often today. Some companies even reward employees by giving them higher positions because of past performance without properly evaluating their ability to cope with personnel problems that might be involved in the new assignment.

As any person rises higher in a company, more and more time must be spent in managing people and less and less time spent in managing things.

For instance, let’s imagine that I am a repairman for a large truck delivery company. I prove to be a great mechanic and am promoted to supervisor of the entire repair department. Unless I understand the transition from dealing with inanimate things to supervising people, I might think my new position is to be in charge of all repairs. In
reality, my new responsibility is to work through people in satisfying the needs of that department.

Unless a company realizes that there is not necessarily any connection between the ability to handle things and the ability to handle people, great harm can be done both to the company and to deserving employees.

I have in mind a very unfortunate case where an excellent engineer for an ice company was promoted, because of past performance and years of service, to chief engineer of the company. Although he was a fine mechanical engineer, he did not know, and did not seem to be able to learn the first principles about human engineering. His success at his old job was exceeded only by his failure at his new position. Completely unable to cope with his new assignment, he was sent back to his old job where he had once been completely happy and satisfied. The
humiliation of being demoted completely broke his spirit and he finally left the company.

This tragic experience was due to no fault of the man, but was due to the bad judgment of those who promoted him without a proper evaluation of his ability to meet the job requirements. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. It happens too frequently in our business world today.


If I were required to name the credentials of leadership in the order of their importance, I am sure I would put the ability to delegate responsibility at the very top. More executives fail because of their inability in this field than for any other reason. Actually, a great deal of research has been done on delegating responsibilities and there is a wealth of information on the subject. One of the first things a person should do, when he is newly elevated to a position of
authority, is to make an exhaustive study of the field of delegation.

Any intelligent approach to this important subject requires that we relate it to the three dimensions of human engineering. First, Let’s consider WHAT we delegate, then WHY we delegate and, finally, most important of all, HOW we delegate.


Since we define delegation as “permitting one’s subordinates to make decisions under certain circumstances without consulting you, taking action without asking you (just keeping you informed), and being given the security of a certain amount of authority and backing while doing it,” we must first examine certain responsibilities to see which ones lend themselves to such delegation.

If you were promoted to a position of responsibility that required delegation, I would suggest first of all that you carefully list all the responsibilities of your department or position. You would find that some are in the field of policy making and some are more routine. Some are so important that an error in judgment or in handling would
cause much damage; others, if handled improperly, would not affect overall results materially. Some duties are easily handled and can be grasped quickly. Others are more intricate and require much study and training.

Next, you must study the background, abilities and experience of those employees for whom you are responsible. It would be of little value to you to understand the nature of tasks to assign if, at the same time, you did not understand the qualifications of those who are to accept these responsibilities.

Sometimes you will even find that there are certain responsibilities which should be assigned, but, at the time, you do not have qualified employees who can accept such responsibilities.

A successful department head is constantly upgrading his employees through training so that he can delegate more and more responsibilities.

And so in determining WHAT to delegate, we must understand both job requirements and the abilities of employees. One without the other is not enough. Both require constant study and understanding. Both are variables and may change from time to time.

The more an executive can delegate with safety, the more valuable that executive is to his company. It is about the best recommendation that a person can receive. If a supervisor only delegates routine and unimportant duties over a period of time, when actually there are more important tasks in his department that could be delegated, he is not a
leader and the situation should be rectified in some manner.


About the worst recommendation that can be said for any department head is to say that his department is a one-man department. Not much would be accomplished if a person tried to do everything himself. The responsibility of an executive is not to do the work himself, but to get the work done through other people.

And so the first reason that one delegates is that only through delegation can one get the required amount of work done. Show me a department where the supervisor tries to do more work individually than he should do and I’ll show you a department subject to “bottlenecks,” panics and constant crises.

When we discover such a situation as this, we usually also find a supervisor who enjoys power and finds satisfaction in exercising authority, meeting emergencies and fighting management fires.

If an executive can effectively delegate, he is released from certain responsibilities and consequently has more time to improve and, when necessary, expand his department. If a supervisor is overloaded, he does not have an opportunity to train properly or to devote himself to problems which need immediate attention.

Many employees suffer from job monotony. The best cure for this is a feeling of responsibility. A feeling of responsibility goes hand in hand with initiative, motivation and employee morale.

It should be the goal of every supervisor to delegate responsibility and develop his department to the position where
it can run smoothly without him for a reasonable time. Of necessity, there are occasions, such as sickness, vacations, training courses and the like when the supervisor must be away. During this time, he should feel a sense of security, that all is well while he is absent. The degree to which this is possible is a reflection of the supervisor’s ability to delegate properly.

Many a supervisor has Lost the opportunity of a valuable promotion because he has not attempted, through delegation of responsibility, to develop a person who could immediately step into his shoes in the event of a vacancy.

I know the president of a large corporation who climbed through every: plateau of responsibility on his way up. From a new employee he went to “straw boss,” foreman, supervisor, general superintendent, etc. I asked this president if he could put his finger on any one factor which contributed to his rise more than anything else.

His answer was very interesting. He said that after assuming each new position, he set about trying to fire himself-trying to train a man who could do his job better than he himself could do it. This is the very highest dimension of delegation.


One of the principal reasons some people don’t delegate is an innate feeling of insecurity. They are afraid that if someone else can handle their job they are no longer needed. Such reasoning is colossal insanity-nothing is further from the truth. Actually they are available for a promotion. If a supervisor should ever feel insecure it is when he does not have anyone who can step into his shoes.

Some people don’t have the capacity of being able to put confidence in other people. The inability to trust and believe
in the other person is a very serious fault. Unless this can be overcome, a person is not a fit candidate for a supervisory position. Without this confidence he will never be able to delegate.

Many supervisors are handicapped in delegation because they do not know how to train a person to accept and carry out the responsibilities delegated. A supervisor may be proficient in the work of his department but unless he can impart this knowledge to others, his ability to delegate is greatly limited.

We have heard the expression many times, “If the employee hasn’t Learned, the supervisor hasn’t taught.” While this is an old axiom, it should not be treated lightly.


Now we come to the third dimension of delegation, HOW to delegate.

When you approach an employee about accepting a new task, by all means present it to him as a challenge, as an opportunity, not as just another chore.

“Bill, this is an important job, one that has to be done quickly. I believe you are the fellow who can do it. Do you
think you can?”

The supervisor who can get an employee excited over a new responsibility has learned a great Lesson in delegation.

The supervisor who knows the human engineering approach is careful to see that an employee does not look upon a new task as a risk of failure. Rather he challenges him to accept it as an opportunity for success.

A person, in delegating jobs, should never overlook the fact that the task is more interesting to the employee if it has the element of teamwork connected with it. It gives an employee a sense of security to know that others are working on the project with him. There is the added factor that each feels he must do his share so that the others are not let down.

An extremely effective way of delegating responsibility is through discussion with the employee. Instead of telling him, ask him questions. Get his recommendations.

“Bill, an important job has just come up. How do you feel it ought to be handled?”

If he tells you, then you have HIM involved. This is HIS way. Also, you can bet that he wants to prove that he was right, and he will do a good job. You have his ego at stake.

When you delegate, you will find that the employee is usually much more receptive if you delegate a complete package; that is, a project or finished job. If the employee can visualize a completed task, he feels the opportunity for fulfillment otherwise, it is merely putting in just so many hours on a routine basis. This may seem trivial, but to the employee, it may be the difference between boredom and a challenge.


Regardless of what method you use in delegating responsibility, be sure that you make yourself clear-be sure that the employee understands fully. There is only one way that you can do this and that is by asking questions.

“Let’s see, Bill, are we clear on this point? How was it that we both felt this part of the work should be done?”

In asking questions, it is preferable to ask the question in such a way that the employee must recite some of the details in his answer. This is one of the best ways to ensure that he fully understands.

“Just to make sure that you and I are together in our understanding, Jim, repeat back to me your view of what is to be done.”


If you want to be sure that your instructions are going to be carried out, mere delegation is not enough. You must set up controls. Have the employee report back to you. Be sure he gives you progress reports.

“Let’s see now, Charlie, will you report back to me at ten o’clock tomorrow Morning on how things are progressing? You see, they will be here at three tomorrow afternoon to pour the cement.”

Now you have given yourself some protective time. If for some reason Charlie is not far enough along to suit you, you at least have time to put an emergency squad on the job and get it done.

The certain way of flirting with disaster is to delegate responsibilities and then forget about it. You must inspect the work or get progress reports to be sure the work will be completed in the prescribed time. The old axiom still holds true, “We get what we INSPECT, not what we EXPECT.”


One of the best methods of getting the utmost from those you supervise, is to make them feel that you are WITH them rather than OVER them. I don’t mean that you should ever abdicate any of your authority. Employees like to feel that their supervisor is both firm and fair. I do mean, however, that you should make the employee realize that his success is your success and his failure is your failure.

If an employee performs a poor job and you jump all over him and bless him out, what do you think would be his reaction?

If, on the other hand, you said, “Bill, I think that you and I together can improve on this job. Let’s see what we can do. Why don’t you try it again?”

Bill feels a part of something. Poor work is a reflection not only on himself but on the department and on you. I am sure he will try harder.

When I worked in a large New York Wall Street law firm, for six months I was strictly in what was called the Research Department. I would write memoranda of law on various points for two of the senior partners who were trial lawyers. The first time I delivered a memorandum to one of these men, he took it and then said, “All I want to know, Cavett, is this the best that you and I together can do?”

The remark scared me. immediately I felt that my standard of performance must be of a quality worthy of a senior partner. It suddenly dawned on me that if that memorandum were not correct in all respects, it would be a reflection on the top men of the law firm. Momentarily I felt a partnership responsibility with him.

Fortunately I knew that the law contained in the memorandum was correct. I had checked it and rechecked it. From that moment, however, I felt a much greater responsibility and I tried even harder the next time I received an assignment.


One of the outstanding qualities of a great leader is the ability to make an employee feel important. Furthermore, one of the greatest ego builders to an employee is to have his supervisor ask for his opinion on something.

But merely to ask an employee questions is not enough. His opinion must be sought out in a sincere manner and the supervisor must be a good listener.


If you are sincere in wanting to know what is an employee’s real opinion, don’t try to influence him in your questioning.

Don’t say, “This is the way I see it, Mack; isn’t that about the way it appears to you?”

This is a “mirror question.” You can’t begin to get even a suggestion of his real opinion. Furthermore, it is evident that you have’ already made up your mind. You have no desire to know how he feels about it and even if he gave you his opinion, he is certain that your mind is closed.

Rather than the above, try a “window question.”

“Mack, I’d Like to get your ideas about this problem. You are closer to it than anyone else.”

“That sounds interesting, Mack ; do you mind telling me in detail just why you feel that way about it?”

Now Mack is convinced that you really want to know his opinion. You have let him feel that his opinion is valuable to you. Undoubtedly he will open up under these conditions just as fully as he would have closed up under the first approach.

Not only is this good human engineering if done sincerely, but you actually will profit a great deal from the opinion of your employees. They are on the firing line close to the problems and often have an insight into problems you might have overlooked.

(The original source and/or publisher of the above material is unknown.)

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