4 rules of delegation

Managers must be able to delegate effectively. However, there is often confusion over what delegation actually is and is not. Some managers simply view delegation as a means to offload undesirable tasks to subordinates. These tasks may be undesirable for a variety of reasons. The task may be viewed as menial, or not suited for direct management involvement. Perhaps the task is one that the manager her/himself may not be fully capable of doing. At times, though unfortunate, the task may be distasteful or unpleasant, so it is delegated to a junior member of the team.


Regardless of the reasons, there are four fundamental rules every manager must follow when delegating. These rules are listed in reverse order of importance below:

Rule 4: Responsibility can be delegated.

The most common form of delegation is assigning responsibility to a team member to accomplish a task or project. Generally speaking it is best to define the outcomes of the delegated responsibility, and the guidelines which must be followed to accomplish the project. Successful managers also understand the importance of following up periodically to ensure the project is progressing as desired.

Assignment of responsibility to accomplish a task or project is often viewed as the definition of delegation. However, as we will see later, this narrow view of delegation is somewhat limited and can lead to unfortunate results.

Rule 3: Authority can be delegated.

As discussed above, the most common form of delegation is assigning responsibility for accomplishing a task or project. Authority may (and should, as will be discussed below) also be delegated. When managers delegate it should be assumed that authority to undertake and accomplish the assignment.

Rule 2: When Responsibility is delegated, Authority must also be delegated.

At times managers may attempt delegate responsibility without empowering the responsible person to complete the job. Most often the rationale behind such attempts is that the person who is responsible should somehow “influence” others even though he or she has no official authority to require their participation.

In my view this model is at best ineffective and at worst a copout by senior managers who are unwilling or unable to form cooperative bonds with their peers and agree priorities for the business.

When managers make one of their charges responsible for accomplishing an assignment, they must also empower that individual with the authority to take the necessary actions to be successful.

Delegating responsibility without the necessary authority to accomplish the task is setting the individual (and project) up for failure.

Rule 1: Accountability cannot be delegated.

I have witnessed over the years a disturbing trend of business leaders attempting to delegate accountability downwards to their subordinates. This phenomenon is most often expressed by senior management not accepting blame or consequence for failures within their departments. Instead, they seek to pass the blame and consequence to their subordinates.

To be clear, passing blame and consequences downwards to subordinates is not the same as holding subordinates accountable for accomplishing their delegated tasks. It is totally acceptable for a manager to coach and counsel his or her team members, or even take more drastic measures up to and including termination of employment, when they have failed to achieve their goals. However, it is problematic when the leadership of a company, department or team is not held to the same level of accountability, or higher, as his or her subordinates.

Failure to retain ultimate accountability for performance with managers inevitably results in a number of undesirable consequences for the manager, team and business. Although the manager may not realize it, attempting to pass his accountabilities downwards complicates his ability to manage the team. If team members are in constant fear of being “thrown under the bus” by their leaders they will underperform in the long run, or leave the team outright. Moral within the team will quickly be undermined, and individuals will be reluctant to take rational risks that may benefit the team and business for fear of retribution.

So, to sum up:
The four fundamental rules of delegation are:

  1. Responsibility can be delegated.
  2. Authority can be delegated.
  3. When Responsibility is delegated, Authority must also be delegated.
  4. Accountability cannot be delegated.

Failure to adhere to these rules can have negative consequences. Thus it is important for managers to ensure that they understand the rules, and develop good delegation skills. Executed properly, delegating assignments to team members serves as a “force multiplier,” enabling the manager to maximize the efficiency of the team and accomplish more with fewer resources.

Effective delegation also serves to develop team members, providing them with experiences necessary to build competence and confidence, and take on progressively more responsible roles within the team and/or organization.

Photo by h. koppdelaney, who has loads of awesome images on Flickr

About the author

Chris Akins

Hi! And welcome to my website! I started ChrisAkinsdotCom in 2006 as a part of my own personal growth journey, and over the years it has certainly helped me evolve as a person, and ultimately change careers from a business executive to a mindset coach, and human behavior professional. This blog reflects many of the thoughts, insights, and strategies that have helped me make life altering changes. I hope reading ChrisAkinsdotCom will help you in some way as well!

Dan Black - 4 years ago

Great post, I think it’s wise to delegate areas of personal weaknesses (Those areas we are not strong in). Which also needs to have your steps aside them.

I just found your blog and look forward to reading it more.

    Chris Akins - 4 years ago

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for checking my blog out.

    I don’t know any successful manager or executive who doesn’t rely on subordinates to take up the slack where he or she is weak. My last business role was VP of Operations for a manufacturing company. I was very strong in the supply/purchasing/quality/strategy side, but relatively weak on the manufacturing ops side. Lucky for me I had a solid manufacturing manager to back me up. Otherwise I would have crashed and burned.

    I look forward to seeing you around the blog.


    Chris Akins - 4 years ago

    Oh – BTW I have a great post on building credibility as a new leader scheduled for today (3/19). Check it out and let me know what you think.


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