The Five Levels of Delegation

Delegation is critical to leadership. You can’t take on more responsibility unless you are willing to delegate to others. But that doesn’t mean it is always easy.

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Recently, one of my mentees was planning a special event. Last week, he was surprised to discover that someone on his planning team had completed a project that he didn’t really authorize. He was clearly frustrated, because he felt the other person had taken more initiative that he was given.

After listening to him describe the situation, I finally said, “The fault is not with your team member’s action. The problem is that you didn’t make your expectations clear when you delegated this task.” I then asked him if he had ever heard of the five levels of delegation. He said, “no,” and then I shared them with him.

I have always taken these for granted, but realized this was a brand new thought for my young friend. Perhaps it is for you as well.

As a leader, whenever you delegate a task, you need to make it clear what level of authority you are conferring to others:

  • Level 1: Do exactly what I have asked you to do. Don’t deviate from my instructions. I have already researched the options and determined what I want you to do.
  • Level 2: Research the topic and report back. We will discuss it, and then I will make the decision and tell you what I want you to do.
  • Level 3: Research the topic, outline the options, and make a recommendation. Give me the pros and cons of each option, but tell me what you think we should do. If I agree with your decision, I will authorize you to move forward.
  • Level 4: Make a decision and then tell me what you did. I trust you to do the research, make the best decision you can, and then keep me in the loop. I don’t want to be surprised by someone else.
  • Level 5: Make whatever decision you think is best. No need to report back. I trust you completely. I know you will follow through. You have my full support.

The problem is that my mentee thought he was delegating at Level 2. The person on his team assumed he had given him Level 4. The whole problem could have been avoided by clarifying the expectations on the front end.

Question: As a leader, are you making it clear what level of authority you are conferring when you delegate a task?
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  • Fred M

    Michael, I've been reading your blog for 3 months now and finding tremendous value in your insights. Nevertheless, this is the first time I couldn't stop myself from commenting With over 20 years as a military officer, years self-employed with several employees, and years leading consulting teams, I have some experience with delegation…but have never seen/heard a more concise description – or prescription – for clarifying expectations. The point you make about the potential for disconnects between delegator and delegatee is powerful in helping explain job satisfaction – or frustration. Thanks for this!

  • http://bigisthenewsmall.com Scott Williams

    Great thoughts… I believe that the various levels are earned through relationship and expertise. I have some team members that may have level 5 authority on most decisions, while others it may depend on what we are dealing with.

    Level 5+ is great – That's what I like to refer to as "I trust you to speak and act on my behalf."

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I like that. Most of my direct reports are at this level for almost everything.

      • http://fghart.wordpress.com FGHart

        Having caught Lindsey’s inadvertent “tweet on your behalf” yesterday, I’m sure this is true. :)

    • Gail

      I totally agree!

  • http://www.gospelofkingdom.com Gregory Scott

    Michael-
    This is very practical and helpful. It’s easy to assume those to whom we delegate got it wrong because they didn’t listen. This puts responsibility back on the only person whose actions we can truly control. Good stuff.

  • http://geoffreywebb.wordpress.com/ Geoff Webb

    I was thinking the same thing! When I'm delegating at level 4 or 5, I've got to be clear about what's nonnegotiable and allow the other person to "do it their way" with the rest. I struggled as a young leader when "their way" didn't match "my way." But that was my issue, not theirs.

  • http://geoffreywebb.wordpress.com/ Geoff Webb

    Terrific resource! Your delegation is only as clean as you are clear – with yourself and with others. Thanks.

  • http://www.validleadership.com James Castellano

    In the past I would assume my people understood everything they were told the first time. The reality is they didn't and would surprise me with poor results and unmet deadlines. Now I take nothing for granted and make sure each time a task is delegated they understand what is expected from me and from them. Then I follow-up as needed to keep everyone on track. In my position I rely on others in a big way. Clear instruction, expectation and execution is critical.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Good for you. Clarification of expectations is everything. It saves a lot of frustration.

  • http://www.therextras.com BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

    The power of this list is in its simplicity.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I have a simple mind. ;-)

      • http://www.therextras.com BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

        Not! ;)

  • Scott Meyer

    This is golden. Thanks for sharing it clarifies my own thinking as to what I am asking when I delegate.
    Grace & Peace
    Scott

  • http://www.WorldsBestManagementAndLifeCourse.com Greg Gilbert

    This reminds me of the growth stages of a new manager or supervisor. Stage 1- They ask what to do. Stage 2-They bring what they want to do and ask your input. Stage 3-They handle it and then let you know what they did. Stage 4-They handle it and you may not even know it. I cover these in a management class that I teach, Worlds Best Management And Life Course. It is so rewarding to watch the growth through the stages.

  • http://thatguykc.wordpress.com ThatGuyKC

    Please tell me you'll do a book tour when your book comes out or at least the next time you fly through Seattle let me buy you a cup of coffee.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience on leadership. I've been able to share a number of your posts with the managers on my team and it's making a difference in our team dynamic and productivity.

    Keep 'em coming.

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    This is a great list, Michael. Being on the doer side more than the delegator side, I've found that clear, written instructions are the best. If it is a big project, having a timetable with milestones is also very helpful. As a facilitator, having clear guidelines you can refer to makes the likelihood of success much greater.
    On the leadership side, I've found it very helpful to schedule due dates for projects a few days in advance of the actual drop dead date. That way if there are problems or discrepancies they can be resolved with time to spare. Even the best people often forget or get overwhelmed with other projects. Having a multiple day buffer is beneficial for both leaders and facilitators alike.

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    This is where "The curse of knowledge" can rear it's ugly head. So many times the leader will delegate something that they are very familiar with to a person who has never done the task before. They expect the job to be done in a certain way and in a timely fashion. The problem is, without training, the person doing the task is at a loss on the proper procedure and in most cases will not be able to meet the implied timeline. Spending a few minutes going over the procedure can save hours of frustration later.

  • sbarkley

    Having staff at level 5 makes me feel more like the coach of a great team, rather than a manager. My role then becomes one of defining success, and then watch the content experts take responsibility and make it happen. That is so exciting for me.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Me, too. I want everyone who reports to me to be at level five for most stuff.

  • http://keithjennings.typepad.com/keitharsis Keith Jennings

    I'm with you, Daniel. My organization uses a cool system that measures an associates "readiness" for delegation. It's based on a system that measures an associate's skills & understanding (i.e. ability), and desire & self-confidence (i.e. motivation). The higher their ability and motivation, the higher the level of delegation they enjoy. It's more fluid than it may sound here. But that's the mechanics of how it works and it helps address the problem you captured in your comment.

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  • http://www.steveakers.com Steve Akers

    Fantastic list… thanks for sharing! It matches well with situational leadership theory developed by Paul Hersey. The basic idea is to rank your team members as high/medium/low on both competence and commitment (or as I learned it, results and leadership values). Each individual's ranking will put them in one of the following categories: telling, selling, participating, delegating (or again as I learned it directing, coaching, supportive, delegating). Your levels 1 & 2 feel like variations on direction, level 3 is coaching, level 4 is supportive, and level 5 is delegating. Once the appropriate leadership style has been determined for each member (and of course it could change depending on the task as well), it's important to understand the following three things during each interaction with that person: 1) what are they working on to improve their results, 2) what are they working on to improve their leadership values, and 3) what am I working on when I am working with them. That last step is often overlooked and critically important. As a manager it is easy to focus solely on what your team needs to improve upon and forget that you need to continually focus on being a better manager, and more specifically, how to manage each individual so that they achieve their fullest potential.

  • Aaron Armstrong

    When I delegate, I like to be in the loop, but I try to keep my fingers out as much as possible. Basically, if someone needs to bounce an idea off of me, that's what I'm there for.

    Now, when others delegate to me, it's interesting to see different perspectives at work. My immediate superior works with the same perspective as me, but our superiors tend to want to be far more involved in the decision making process (although, interestingly, they would say they're very hands off). This, of course, is their prerogative as the authorities over us but can get a little frustrating.

    Question: on your teams, how do you fight becoming paralyzed by indecision? Is there a temptation over-discuss in your organization?

  • http://www.LaurindaOnLeadership.com Laurinda

    Love this post! Making clear expectations is always an issue – saying it and following up with an email helps. Also, when someone continuously delegates to me me at Level 2 when I'm striving to be level 5 at some point I just get frustrated, especially if I have not failed at anything they've given me. Knowing when to move people up the trust ladder is important.

  • Tom Jamieson

    Great thoughts Michael! I had not seen a list like this before. Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.kathyfannon.com Kathy Fannon

    I've not had much experience being the leader, but as a delegate I like to know exactly what my leader expects of me. If they aren't clear, I too, would assume to think at Level 4, showing my motivation as a self-starter and seeking to make my leader's life easier. Efficiency, baby!

  • http://Mariakeckler.com Maria Keckler

    Delegation is never easy for me for a number of reasons, but your list provides a great grid through which I can communicate clear expectations. Thank you for sharing the list so succinclty.

  • http://www.rowentree.com April Rowen

    Being new to managing an office, this post made me realize that I actually haven't been very clear in the level of authority given upon giving a task. (hangs head in shame) Just this weekend, I complained to husband about our communication in delegating and wondered if we were doing something wrong… and if so, what.

    Thank you for this post – it makes delegation seem possible, even simple, and not the crazy it was quickly becoming.

  • http://www.mikevanhoozer.com/ Mike Van Hoozer

    Michael –

    Thanks for providing this information, which is an excellent reminder for leaders at any level within any type of organization. I believe great leaders gracefully navigate between a continuum of directing/guiding and coaching/facilitating. The beauty is knowing which mode to operate from in each situation based on the experience of the people involved. It is a lot like learning to drive a stick shift car. The levels you reference in this post provide a means of communicating within this continuum.

    Thanks for your leadership and impact!

    My best,
    Mike

  • http://www.church-membership-software.net/ Trevor

    I love this list. I hadn't heard it before, but it really makes things a lot clearer, both from a leadership standpoint, and as someone who follows leaders.

    Since most people talk about it from the standpoint of a leader, I figured I'd share what jumped out to me from the standpoint of someone who also follows pastors and those who lead me.

    This list somewhat reminds me of Jesus' advice not to take the best seats at the banquet, but to rather take the lowest and have others ask you to move up.

    To me, being a level 5 follower who can be counted on to do it right without the leader's input seems like the best place at the table. It's where every leader wants everyone under them to be. If you can be that person, you'll be in demand, but it's best to assume you are asked to act at a lower level than you are capable of. That way, if you bring back the ideas with a recommendation and your boss is like "I trust you. I don't need to hear back" then you're honored and somewhat publicly asked to a place of honor.

    But, there's nothing worse than acting at level 4 or 5 and your boss having to say, "Yea, I really was hoping you'd have just stayed at level 3…. sorry." Then that's like assuming you are the most important person at the banquet and then you're asked to move. Granted, you may be capable of a level 5 decision, but if the boss isn't comfortable with you yet just because you're new or maybe they're normally fine with a 5 but in this case there are things you don't know about that necessitate closer supervision, then you have to be careful, same as how you may be important, but it's better to assume there are more important people at the party and be asked to move up rather than down.

  • sbarkley

    Hi April,
    One of the most important attributes I look for in a new hire is willingness to take personal responsibility for a job. In my experience, people do not really want to be managed and many times it is best to just get out of the way and let them do the job. I have gotten too involved enough times and watched motivation go to zero to realize that is was a mistake. Of course this means that they must be the one who gets the recognition for successes. Most people, given the opportunity, will shine if they know you are trusting them for the results. You have to know your people so this is not a blind trust, but calculated. Then success will breed more success. I think this works from the CEO all the way down to the shop floor. Most people want to take responsibility, and be recognized for it. The key for us then becomes leaning how to manage in that environment. Many times you just have to stand back and hopefully watch people excel.

    • http://www.rowentree.com April Rowen

      Wow… I have much to re-learn and implement. My husband and I were given the reigns of a business to manage, but not a lot of management training. Ironically, being given total and complete trust from my own boss to do the job – like you said – has bred ions of motivation. And yet, here I am, for the first time, realizing I myself need to create the same feeling of independence and responsibility with my own staff that my boss so wonderfully gives to me. I especially noticed that that the key is looking for personal responsibility in a new hire and growing it.

      I really appreciate your response – thank you.

    • http://enjoyingjourney.blogspot.com/ Traveller

      Sbarkley, May I ask…
      How do you identify “willingness to take personal responsibility” in the hiring process? Just straight out ask the question? And then for examples? And then evaluate their thinking?

  • http://larryhehn.com Larry_Hehn

    I'll always remember a lesson in communication I learned at a conference several years ago. I approached the doorkeeper at the end of our session and said, "Thanks very much for all you did here today. Have a good night." I was surprised to return 30 minutes later to find him still at his post. "Nobody told me I could leave," he said. And he was right. When I said "good night," I thought I was communicating that the session was over, and he was free to leave. But my language was very unclear. Now I'm a lot more conscious of how well I communicate instructions!

  • http://www.brianhinkley.com Brian Hinkley

    I have seen leaders delegate at a level four our five then micromanage as if they delegated at a one. In this case the leader needs to be confident and clear with the decision made and act accordingly to avoid problems.

  • http://www.blaneyoung.com Blane Young

    As a leader, I think I rarely make it past level one.
    And then I think, I wouldn't be where I am today if someone hadn't trusted me and delegated to me on another level.

    I think we view delegating as either: I do it or they do it, so this is a very challenging reminder that we can master this arena.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      This is a good point. Trust is a huge component.

  • http://www.toddburkhalter.com Todd Burkhalter

    Very relevant message for me. In our office at Catalyst we have a great friendly atmosphere, often joking and laughing. That has led to things not being done in the manner that I suggested. Sometimes things are non negotiable, they must get done; Not maybe we'll get to it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pitchjoseph Pitch Joseph Arunsuwannakorn

    Thank you for the amazing tips!

  • http://twitter.com/willieram @willieram

    I recall an interview from a very successful entrepreneur (measuring success not just financially, but in terms of building a strong brand, highly respected by others, in a short time span of a few years). He was asked about the toughest and most critical challenge an executive and entrepreneur can take, and he answered "To build teams".

    That just couldn't be more true. It's a quality I see on every successful businessman or social entrepreneur and the "root" challenge I see in my endeavors.

    Any good reads about that -not to mention spaces to debate about it- would be welcome as well.

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  • http://www.c3churchmarketing.com Bobby Minor

    Many leaders struggle with delegating at level 4 and 5 because they are too overprotective of their vision. I think many leaders can go from good to great by simply learning to let go and empower the right people on those levels.

  • http://twitter.com/ManagerbyDesign @ManagerbyDesign

    I like this article a lot, as it provides a concise ladder for increasing the levels of delegation, and the gradual increase in comfort level with the process. I believe that many managers are expected to delegate 100%, or, fearing the negative outcomes of this, end up delegating 0%. Having a graduated process that shows the different levels will help any manager or leader better gain comfort and ability to delegate effectively.

  • Brad

    Just yesterday I was in a class and had to give a brief presentation on the importance of delegating. This just clarified at what level I need to do this to. Thanks.

    Barriers to Delegating:
    Loss of Control
    Guilt
    Time
    Quality
    Inadequate communication

  • http://www.anotherjohn.com John

    Nice.

    A lot more could get done effectively and less feelings could get hurt if we could make sure to communicate this. Thanks.

    Stay blessed…john

  • http://twitter.com/AndreaAresca @AndreaAresca

    I had those concepets in mind, but seeing this 5-levels-scale helps me so much in make more clear my expectations.
    Often a members of my team face a problem or a situation that needs quick resolution. It is not the case of delegated task, but they have to do something on it. How can I help them understand if it is a matter they should analyze and then report me back (level 1) or a matter they should decide by themselves (level 4 or 5)? As the leader, how can I help them understand in every situtation what I expect from them?

  • http://www.mightyrasing.com Mighty

    Interesting post! It's a great way to clarify expectations and help team members act according to such expectations.

  • http://guymwilliams.net guy m williams

    excellent. thanks, Michael. I've been experiencing tension in my new role. I've got really good staff. I can see where and why with this list. So far I've been leaning on the side of affirming initiative and decision-making in order to have people feeling empowering instead of watched and controlled. But I've had a couple of decisions or actions taken that surprised me. Thanks for helping me see why.

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  • Terry Bennett

    Michael, great list but isn't that little word "if" missing from the beginning of the 2nd sentence of level 3?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks. I have fixed it now.

  • http://musicroad.blogspot.com Kerry Dexter

    Whewn I used to manage a large and ever changing group of people working on a television project, I found it interesting and challenging that at times people wanted different levels of responsibility than I was choosing to delelgate. My goal was to get everyone to level 4 or 5, but not everyone wanted to get there at all, and I had good chances to learn when it was best to respect that choice and best to work with a person to take on more responsibility.

  • Gail

    Try being the delegatee and trying to figure out what someone meant when they asked you to do a task and won't clarify their expectations! I find it difficult at work when one boss trusts you with a 5 and another wants you to act at 1 or 2 and so you have to switch between taking initaitve and making things happen and just being the research bunny all in the same day!

    I think Scott has a point about the levels being about trust built through relationship. However, as a natural delegator when I am the leader, I have also found that it depends on the compentancy of the follower and what level they rise to, as some people don't like going above a 1 or 2. On the flip side, I have had bosses who don't have the self confidence to allow their staff to rise above a 1 or 2 and they want to take all the decisions and credit for themselves.

    I am excited to take away this wonderfully concise list and apply it to my life. Thanks!

  • http://www.nealhopps.com Neal Hopps

    Michael,

    As a leader in the modern era, I have found myself looking back at this post almost on a daily basis. It has help me create boundaries for not only myself but for my employees. This in turn has made me a much better leader as they know exactly what I expect as well as they know what to expect out of me.

    Once again, thank you for sharing such an insightful and informative post.

  • http://www.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    I’m wondering if my above comment was nuked because it contained the phrase “go screw yourself” even though it was directed at an imaginary character in the course of making a point.

  • http://enjoyingjourney.blogspot.com/ Traveller

    Just wanted to say “Thanks” for this, and many other articles regarding leadership and managing life. I’m on the other side of the world, trying to figure a lot of things out in leading a small office in community development…one step at a time. I’m in the process of translating this one into Chinese, to see if it helps clarify our work with each other.

  • http://lisadelay.com Lisa Colón DeLay

    fantastic.

  • http://fghart.wordpress.com FGHart

    I’m working through the process of taking delegation to a new level as part of my transition into increased responsibility. I’m going to post the 5 levels of delegation on a wall in my office as a crisp reminder to clearly convey expectations along with assignments. Thanks, as always, for this great insight.

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  • PJN

    Michael, once again a great entry…and it has caused me to think about how I delegate and why I delegate. To help me I have combined the productivity tool ‘Things’ with your 5 levels of delegation. In Things I have set the tags for tasks to be the five levels, e.g. “1: Do exactly what I asked”. Now, when I delegate I have already decided what level of delegation I am using as those tasks arrive – by the way I do not delegate everything ;). It has been an interesting activity in reflecting on how much I delegate, what sort of delegation I use and, perhaps most revealing, how differently I delegate to my team.

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  • http://www.christopherscottblog.typepad.com/ Christopher Scott

    When I’m leading and delegate a task, I am always clear on the outcome I am requesting, but I leave the process of getting that outcome up to the individual.

    When I have our assistant (which is shared my our entire office) sort out papers for me, I tell her this is what it’s going to look like when you’re done. I demonstrate to her the outcome I need to have her get to, but then I give her permission to find a process that works for her.

    A couple of years ago I read the book, Building Leaders (by Abrey Malphurs, I believe) and he talked about the difference between delegation and empowerment. That book has helped me to focus on delegating for outcomes, but not the process.

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  • http://www.EntreLeadership.com Daniel Tardy

    Just walked one of our admins through this today.  This format is so empowering!

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  • LindaGalindo

    So good! I talk about 5 levels of team in Where Winners Live and this aligns perfectly! Very powerful combination. I will be sure to include as we talk about “team.”

    http://www.wiley.com/buy/9781118436264

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