Four common mistakes in delegation

Delegating can be the Number One time saver, but it does have its traps. Even after several years of heading my group, there is still lots of space for improvement for me. Here, I’ll cover how you can avoid four common mistakes with delegating. Let’s make life just a little easier…

mistakes in delegating

This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
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Delegation is the Number One strategy of freeing up your time, so that you can focus on doing what’s most important and what you do best (I discuss more strategies here). I guess, it’s also everyone’s dream before they become a leader: Once I am the boss, I’ll tell everyone what to do… Well. As it turns out, this can be harder than one might think.

Mistake 1: Not delegating (enough)

Once you are in that admirable position of being able to delegate, doubts start creeping into your head:
Can the person I hired really do this task well? Without all the knowledge that I have collected over the last years, it’s impossible to do it well! And besides, I can do it so much faster than this new PhD student, so I should just do it myself.

Chances are you know the feeling: no one can do anything as well, or as fast, as you can.

This is the biggest mistake of all that you can make with delegating. It keeps you trapped in the everyday tedious tasks that eat up lots of time. It feels important to do them (and it is!), but too little time remains to do all the things that come with leading: planning; supervising; writing.

Often, we’re stuck in our old routines, and, without thinking, we execute whatever tasks lay before us. Here are 5 steps that help you identify which tasks you should delegate.

  1. Get an overview. Write down all the things you have done in the last one or two weeks. Try to catch everything, especially all the little stuff.
  2. Identify recurrences. On your list, identify all tasks that recur regularly. These are prime candidates for delegation. First, you will save time every time the item recurs and someone else does it for you. Second, given the recurrence, it’s well worth teaching someone else how to do it.
  3. Find what you do best. Make a new list. Write down those things that you do best. Try to avoid biasing your list towards the what I’ve done recently list; this new list should be more of a what I’d do if I could freely choose list. Compare this new list with the old list. Those things that overlap between the two lists are things you probably shouldn’t delegate. Your aim is to have only these kinds of tasks on your todo list.
  4. Sort out what you can. Re-examine your first list (the what I’ve done recently list) once more. There are now probably items on there that weren’t recurring, but that also aren’t on your wish list. For each item, think hard whether it is something that you have to do yourself, and that can be done so fast that teaching someone else to do it is not worth it.
    My experience is that there are many items that at first feel like I must do them myself. Often, though, I realize that someone else can do them just as well. Consider, for instance, handling finances, hiring student assistants, or checking out choices and getting quotes for a new lab device.
  5. Improve continually. Once you’ve made a start by identifying tasks that can be delegated, make it a habit to ask yourself with everything you do: is this something I can potentially delegate, or does it belong to my core responsibilities and to the things I do best?

Mistake 2: Not taking enough time for teaching

Delegating can go wrong. You’ve handed a task to someone, and the result is not what you wanted. In the worst case, you have to run after the whole thing and clean up a mess.

As a consequence, next time, you do the task yourself again. But, with this strategy, chances are some unloved tasks will stick with you.

When you first delegate a task that requires either special knowledge or skill, you will first have to invest time and work. This is a common hurdle, because in the beginning it feels as if delegating takes more time than doing things yourself. This is true, but temporary.

It is important to invest the time and effort to teach the person you delegate to. Only then can s/he successfully do the task. And you’ll have peace of mind.

Mistake 3: Not communicating clearly

The other day, I needed to find the best option for a product we needed in our group. Luckily, I remembered that I don’t have to do everything myself, and delegated the task to one of my PhD students. In my mind, I’d get the info about the best product in a day or two. Instead, I got a long email with a lot of links to many different products, with the friendly note that I could now look at all of them.

Clearly, I had failed to communicate my requirements and expectations.
When communicating what you want, let the person know what result you want to receive, and at what point you want to be back in the loop.

Michael Hyatt distinguishes 5 levels of delegation:

  1. Do exactly what I tell you. You give step-by-step instructions, and expect that they will be followed. No room for creativity.
  2. Research the topic, report back, I decide. Someone does the collecting for you.
  3. Research, outline the options, make a recommendation. Here, you want the person to actually think.
  4. Make a decision, then tell me what you did. You trust the person you’re delegating to with the task. You only want to make sure you can step on the brake if you disagree after all.
  5. Make a decision, act, no reporting necessary. This works either with unimportant things that you really don’t care about, or with people who are competent with the task at hand and whom you fully trust.

Besides defining the result you want back, it is often useful to set a deadline. Some management people insist that every delegated task must have a deadline. Of course, we all know we only start things the day before a deadline. So the assumption seems to be that without a deadline, the task would never be done. So, if you experience that your delegated tasks often don’t get done, try out deadlines.

When delegating a task, let the person know what you want and need. It’s useful to

  • summarize at the end of a delegating conversation
  • ask the person what she thinks she is supposed to do (and correct if wrong)
  • and to leave room for questions.

While these points may sound self-evident, they really are not, when you distribute tasks via Email, or shout out your request in a hurry before you run elsewhere.

Remember: It’s important for the person to know exactly what you want. If they don’t know, they’ll make their assumptions, and those might be right. Or not.

Mistake 4: Not following up on your delegated tasks

It’s crucial to keep track of the tasks you’ve delegated. So, keep a list. If you use the Getting Things Done system, then you’ll tag every task you delegate with the waiting context, and also tag it with the person you’ve delegated to.
(If you don’t know what GTD is, you can read about it in this post; and about implementing it in Evernote here.)

Why is it important to follow up on delegated tasks?
First, you want to be sure that they got done.
Second, by following up on each and every task, you create a culture in which it is clear that you are serious about the tasks you distribute.
Third, with many tasks, you’ll want to check the results or base a decision on the outcome.

An easy way to keep track of finished delegated tasks is to ask your team members to email you when they are done.

Have you experienced difficulties with delegating to your team? Do you have useful tips? Leave a comment for everyone to read!


Michael Hyatt has podcasted and blogged quite a bit about delegation, for instance, The fine art of delegation and How to do more of what you love (and less of what you don’t).

Hyatt also has an episode about delegating if you don’t have a team to delegate to. Interesting. Not all of it will work in the science world, but some might. After all, we never have enough people to do the all work!

Manager Tools Basics podcast has a couple of episodes on delegation. These guys talk much, but their advice is very helpful.

Delegation is but one of many ways to recover time for yourself. I’ve written about some others in my post Remove yourself: start leading, stop micro-managing

Photo credit: Skley / Foter / CC BY-ND


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].


  1. JBK says:

    So much truth in this post!

    I also found that the words you use make a huge difference. Sometimes a clear “Do this now” or “Do this until …” is much better than “It would be nice if you could do …”.

    A common mistake is also “We need to do … until” when you thing “He/She needs to do … until” – the problem is that the one you intend to delegate the task to thinks the same and as a result might not do anything :-)

    Anyway, as far as I can tell there is no “one way to delegate properly” – it is very much dependent on the individual person you are working with. Thus, you will need to learn how get a task done by a new PhD student/Postdoc/student etc. everytime :-) What works for one might not work for the other.

    • Tobias says:

      Hi JBK,
      yes, these are good points. It’s a challenge to adjust the wording porperly. In the beginning, it feels weird to be so direct. I’ve also found some more stuff to update this post. When I do, I’ll pick up your suggestions as well.

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