Common Delegation Traps & How to Avoid Them


Leaders – especially of volunteers – often fall into one of two traps when learning delegation skills: they either tell their volunteers in excruciating detail how to do the task and stand over them while they do it, or they do just the opposite – dump a task on someone without resources or support or even a clear understanding of what is wanted.

Nor are people consistent; they may micro-manage or dump a task depending on the perceived importance of the task, their current workload or whether they’ve had their morning coffee.  We’re human; small things can mess with us!

There are five things that you need to provide for effective delegation: the specific result required, a deadline, all the necessary resources, support and space.

Let’s break those down.

Provide a specific required result

The required result needs to be specific; simply saying you want a meeting arranged, for example, leaves things just a bit too vague.  You may find your volunteer meeting with a margarita in Hawaii.

It’s detrimental to tell them HOW to do the task, but the clearer that you can make the required result, the easier it is for them to do it.

Tell them the who, what, where, and when. The how is their decision.

In the above meeting example, try: “I need a two-hour meeting next Thursday with these three people, somewhere off-site, but within a ten-minute drive.”

Provide a confirmation deadline

A deadline is important, too. Not simply because it answers the “when” question, but because a task often (usually) needs to be completed prior to the “when” of the result.

If I had asked you to arrange that meeting, I would need to know that it’s been arranged so that I can book it into my calendar, or if there was some reason it couldn’t be arranged, to fill that allotted time with other things.

Therefore, in addition to the specifics of the result, let your volunteer know when you need to have it confirmed.  “Please let me know by end of day Monday that it’s been done.”

Provide all necessary resources

Even small tasks such as we’ve been discussing require resources; time, information, access to phones or computers, finances, etc. Ensure that those are provided.

If the person that you assign the task to is already overwhelmed with work, ensure that you relieve them of enough of those tasks, at least temporarily, to allow them to complete the new one.

Provide them with the contact information they need to reach the meeting attendees.

Give them an adequate amount of financial authority to book a meeting room. And so on.

This seems obvious, but it may surprise you how many leaders completely forget about these details, or assume that the volunteer will figure it out themselves.  Sometimes they can; but it makes a huge difference in time and quality of result if you provide the essentials.

It will make the task that much more satisfying and enjoyable for the volunteer – which means that they are more likely to take on other tasks the next time you ask.

Remember, volunteers will walk if they’re unhappy.

Provide support

The one that’s most often forgotten or ignored is, support them!

Check in and make sure that they have everything they need (you might have forgotten something).

Do they have any questions? Have any problems come up?

This is different than micro-managing; again, you aren’t telling them how to do the task, or pointing out how you would do it differently; you’re simply making sure that they know that they can come to you if there’s an issue.

With a small task you should only need to do this once, if at all.

If the task is a major one, such as organizing a large conference, set a regular time to check in. Don’t hover; a quick meeting every week or so should be adequate if they understand the task and have all the resources.

Again, always let them know that they can come to you at any time if they have issues.

Don’t just say it, either!  If they come to you, make time to listen and help them out; whether that’s just a word of encouragement (“You’ve got this!”) or providing more resources (“I’ll ask Susan to help you with that aspect of the conference.”)

Providing support is crucial. If a volunteer doesn’t feel supported, or that their work is appreciated, then they will either only give a half-hearted effort, or they won’t work at all.

Let them go

Finally, leave them to it!

I can hear some of you saying “Only check in every week!?! Doesn’t she know how vital this is??”

It can be hard for some of us to let go. Trust me, if you follow the steps above, your volunteer is likely to do a great job.

They may make mistakes, but if they’re supported properly those mistakes will be minor; they will learn from them and they will become an even better helper for future projects.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, it is a question of us leaders learning to let go.

Of being willing to allow people to make mistakes.

Of giving people a chance to grow.

Studies show that one of the top reasons that people volunteer is self-improvement. If you take that away from them, you’ve taken a huge chunk out of their reason for being there.

Delegation, done properly, can satisfy that craving, and keep your volunteers coming back for more. If you want to upgrade your delegation skills, let me know!

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