5 rules of delegation

The 5 Levels of Delegation You Need to Know and Lead Well

by Nov 9, 2017Delegation

Rather than thinking of delegation as a binary issue–either you delegate or you don’t–consider what it might look like on a sliding scale

In a prior article, I talked about the power of using the 70% rule when it comes to delegating tasks to your employees. I also discussed how you need to assess the critical nature of an issue – whether it’s below the waterline or not – when it comes to delegating.

But there’s actually another framework that we’ve had great success with in terms of helping leaders and their direct reports get on the same page when it comes to how issues get delegated on a daily basis.

Rather than thinking of delegation as a binary issue; either you delegate or you don’t; consider what it might look like on a sliding scale where a leader might delegate more responsibility over time as he or she begins to trust the level of competency of their direct report.

We can actually break this down into five different stages of delegation: Levels 1-5.

Actually, there’s a sixth stage level 0 where there is no delegation. This is when a business is run by the “do what I say” rule where there is no authority or decision-making beyond the leader. If you’re reading this, we’ll assume you want to move past this stage.

At Level 1, delegation involves asking a subordinate to take the initial look into an issue or a decision. The goal is for the employee to come to their manager and explain what they learned and what the potential decision options might be. The manager can then choose from those options as they ultimately make the decision.

Level 2 of delegation takes the degree of autonomy further. Here, the employee researches the issue and makes a choice on the course of action. But, the manager still reserves the right to give the go /no-go on that action. There is still an approval process in place.

Level 3 operates more as an opt-out model versus an opt-in version. What I mean by this is that the subordinate makes the call on what the course of action should be; within a certain time frame. That might involve, for instance, a case where a manager tells an employee to proceed with their plan unless they hear from their boss in the next 24 hours. If they haven’t heard anything, they are cleared to proceed.

Level 4 takes the degree of delegation up another notch by making the decision retrospective: the manager asked the employee to tell them what they did after the action has already been taken. This is an evolution from an approval mode of delegation to that of information.

Level 5 is where you have finally reached full delegation. This is where a manager doesn’t even want to know what decision was made or why because they now fully trust the competency of the person they delegated the task to. At this level, you might say to your employee, “take care of it with your own approach and I don’t need to know what you did.”

I understand that it might seem downright scary thinking of moving all the way from Level 0 all the way to Level 5 with your employees. That’s why it’s important to think about it as something you can work together on over time.

I would even encourage you to print out this framework and share it with your employees as a way to explain where you want to go with them and how.

Then, as you run into issues along the way, you can use those as coaching moments to explain how they have contributed to your decision to delegate further or not.

While the goal should always be to reach Level 5 as a way to make sure you as a leader haven’t become a bottleneck, it might be that some employees take longer to get there than others.

In some cases, you might even have to back an employee down a level of delegation until you can agree that they are ready for more responsibility. If you have a high potential employee who is too eager to climb the corporate ladder, for example, you can use the five levels to help them understand how they can gain more autonomy over time by first earning the trust of their manager.

The beauty of this framework is that it gives you the opportunity for leaders and employees to get on the same page and work together toward building a more autonomous and highly productive workforce.