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From our readers…Delegation for nursing managers: Increasing the odds of success

Delegation is one of the most important—and most neglected—management skills. Do it well and it will save you time, help you groom a successor, and develop and motivate your employees. Do it poorly and you will be frustrated, your employees will be confused and demotivated, and the task itself will probably not be accomplished. Although it’s a calculated risk, delegation is definitely a skill worth improving. Properly executed, delegation equals productivity.

Reasons to delegate

There are many reasons to delegate, but they generally fall under one of three categories.

  • so you can focus on the more complex issues—
    This concept goes back to ancient Egypt. Moses was leading a large group through troubled times. His father-in-law, Jethro, decided to see how things were going. He observed how Moses conducted business. Moses was busy all day long and people were literally waiting in line to seek his guidance. Some questions were very routine, others were complex. By the end of the day, Moses had answered many of the same questions several times, had encountered some very challenging situations, and was exhausted. Jethro said “What you do is not good.” Sound familiar? It wasn’t that Moses was too good for the job; or that the people weren’t sincere in their questions; or that Moses wasn’t concerned about them. This job was simply too big for one person. So Moses identified a group of talented individuals, provided necessary training, and delegated the more routine items to them. This left him time and opportunity to deal with the complex matters.
  • because there may be someone else who is better at the task than you—
    If someone else is better prepared or has greater expertise about how to solve a problem, delegate. This is not about egos or glory. This is about accomplishing the work in the best possible manner.
  • so you can provide learning opportunities for your employees—
    Employees who aren’t challenged become complacent, stagnant, nonproductive, ineffective and bored. Can your team afford that? Is it fair to the employee? Is it fair to you? By investing in this employee, you are investing in your department.

Essential elements

To delegate effectively, you should incorporate five elements into the process:
Know your team. Identify the person who is best able to complete the job in terms of capability and availability. Validate this by asking the employee—does he have the knowledge, skills and abilities? Does he have the time? The employee must consider the task to be important—there must be a sense of ownership for it. How are you going to convey the importance—the value—of the task being delegated? You must believe that successful accomplishment of this task is integral to the success of your department; that the success of your department impacts the organization; that the success of the organization is essential in order to accomplish the mission; and that the mission matters. Do you believe it? If not, then reconsider whether the task needs to be done. If you know your team, you’ll know whether they can see through a cloud of unnecessary smoke.

Know the law. There are certain things you must know in order to make sound delegation decisions. This extends beyond employment laws and encompasses profession-specific regulations. Each state has its own Nursing Law, but most are similar in legal expectations of nurses regarding delegation. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing adopted a position paper that addresses legal authority and implications, professional standards, principles and practical applications, and outcomes of effective delegation. It discusses the “five rights of delegation”—the right task, under the right circumstances, involving the right person, with the right direction/communication, and having the right supervision—and provides a framework for nurses to use when working through regulatory aspects of a situation.

Know the job. Although you might not perform your employee’s job, you must understand what it involves. That means knowing when peak workload occurs, knowing the departments with whom the employee interacts, and understanding the resources and tools typically available.

Avoid over-assigning to the more eager, capable workers. This leads to unfair distribution of work and ultimately results in a group of unqualified workers. Although you might not hear it initially, this worker will eventually tire of getting all of the assignments. He’ll tell you this either by physically leaving you for another, more fair, position or by leaving you emotionally and drifting toward nonproductivity.


Communicate. Make sure the employee understands exactly what you want him to do. Explain the rationale for the assignment (and “Because I said so” is not an acceptable answer). Ask questions, watch the work performed, and ask for feedback to make sure your instructions were understood. Identify key points of the project or dates when you want feedback and create a sense of urgency. You need assurance that the task is on track. Although the desired end product should be specified, it is important to give the employee an appropriate degree of autonomy in deciding how the work can be accomplished.

Evaluate. Identify the outcome you’ll use to determine that the project was successfully completed. This will make performance development planning more measurable and less subjective. Evaluate after the task is completed. Include positive and negative aspects of how the person has accomplished the task. This allows you to develop a mutually trusting and productive relationship.

Resistance to delegation
Resistance is common and is often due to failure of the manager to see the employee’s perspective. This doesn’t mean that the employee is always right, but if you can put yourself in his shoes you will have a better idea of how to approach and deal with the resistance.

Sometimes the employee feels overwhelmed due to rapidly changing priorities or multiple supervisors. Imagine a situation in which a nursing assistant receives assignments from three different nurses, all of which are described as “urgent.” In what amounts to a hit-and-run, the nurses drive by quickly, drop off an assignment, and then disappear, leaving the assistant to make the decision about which of these “urgent” items demands attention. Do you really want the assistant making strategic decisions like this? It’s no wonder that the employee feels overwhelmed and becomes resistant to delegation. This sets him up for failure—and it doesn’t do the organization much good, either.

Sometimes the employee doesn’t think he’s capable of completing the delegated task. Maybe he isn’t. Or perhaps he’s capable but lacks confidence. Either way, this is a great opportunity to coach. As a manager, this gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate your knowledge of the employee’s qualities.

Sometimes there is simply an inherent resistance to authority. Maybe the employee is testing the water to see what the consequences might be. You must be calm but assertive regarding expectations. Many managers shy away from a situation like this. They simply assign the task to another person or—worse yet—they just do it themselves. When this happens, you have literally handed over the keys to the office. You must ascertain why the task wasn’t accomplished and take appropriate action to address the resistance.

Why don’t managers delegate?

Iqbal (2007) outlines several reasons why managers don’t delegate.

  • Because I can do it better and faster—Probably. But this isn’t investing in your workers. Even if the task only takes an hour a week, transferring it to an employee will free up about 50 hours annually.
  • Because I am ultimately responsible—Yes. But you are also ultimately responsible if you delegate. Why not lighten the load by sharing with your staff? You still have safeguards in place to monitor the process and it will save you time that can be better spent.
  • Because I’m not sure the employee will do it right—Trust your staff. If you can’t, your problems are much greater than delegation. Define “do it right.” Does that mean there is only one right way? Is there an acceptable minimum? Can you tolerate imperfection? The results are more important than the method, assuming you’ve provided appropriate parameters.
  • Because it makes me unpopular—This is true if you are dumping, because employees will see the unfairness. However, if you are delegating appropriately, you’ll be seen as fair.
  • Because I won’t have anything to do—There will still be plenty on your plate. The difference is that you’ll have more time to concentrate on complex issues and on those that cannot be delegated.
  • Because life is easier—Look at the long term benefits versus the short term frustrations. You are investing in the future of your department.

Essential for success

Delegation is not an option; it’s an essential part of the equation for successful management. If you will learn and apply these basic principles of delegation, you will find yourself in strategic rather than routine arenas. The risk will indeed be calculated, and the results will be more predictable.

Marcia M. Rachel is associate dean for academic programs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Nursing, Jackson.

From our readers gives nurses the opportunity to share experiences that would be helpful to their nurse colleagues. Because of this format, the stories have been minimally edited. If you would like to submit an article for From our readers, click here.

Selected references

National Council of State Boards of Nursing. (2005). Working with others: A position paper. Available at http://www.ncsbn.org/pdfs/Working_with_Others.pdf. Accessed November 11, 2011.

Iqbal J. Why managers don’t delegate and how to get them to do so? Journal of Managerial Sciences. 2007;1(2):57-73.

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2 thoughts on “From our readers…Delegation for nursing managers: Increasing the odds of success”

  1. Marcia Rachel says:

    Sharon–what a great example of investing in the staff. It sounds like your manager has a genuine interest in building on the strengths of the nurses on that unit.

  2. Sharon says:

    My nurse manager delegates to his senior nursing staff often. He also says that he has given us opportunities to excel in our unique ways. he will be the first to tell you that he is NOT always the right person for certain managerial duties. This has given us a great opportunity to grow as nurse leaders and experience leadership within our unit and also our hospital.

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