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Deciding When to Delegate

January 10, 2024

In my coaching, many leaders have given me reasons why they can’t delegate – their people aren’t able to make the decisions (see my previous post about this), or they can’t risk others making decisions that could negatively affect customers or the company’s existence.

Risk-based reasons for not delegating are often due to a lack of nuance when viewing delegation. Many leaders view it as they would a regular light switch – it’s either on or off…they either delegate the decision or they don’t. The reality is that it's more like a dimmer switch - there are levels of delegation that are appropriate to use based on the risk of the decision itself.

Assess Your Risks

I recommend doing a bit of risk assessment on decisions you could delegate, asking questions like:

  • What are the best and worst outcomes that could be realized from this decision? Who would it impact and in what way?
  • What is the likelihood that the worst outcomes could be realized?
  • What limits and constraints could be put in place to avoid the worst outcomes and invite the best outcomes?
  • What mitigations could be put in place to reduce the impact of the worst outcomes?

For decisions that don’t have a risk of widespread or significant negative impact, full delegation is a good candidate.

The Delegation Tree

For decisions that have a higher risk, consider an analogy I’ve heard of – the delegation tree:

  • Leaf-level decisions, at worst, will only have a minimal impact and/or on a few people, much like a tree losing a leaf.
  • Branch-level decisions, at worst, will have a moderate impact to several people, much like a tree losing a branch.
  • Trunk-level decisions will have a significant impact to many people, much like a tree getting cut at the trunk.
  • Root-level decisions will have an existential impact to everyone involved, much like a tree losing its root system.

With this type of risk analysis, you get an idea of what delegation approach is likely to be most effective at balancing engagement and risk:

  • Leaf-level decisions can be full delegated.
  • Branch-level decisions can be fully delegated within appropriate constraints.
  • Trunk-level decisions can be partially delegated, likely being made by the leaders along with other people affected.
  • Root-level decisions are minimally delegated, likely being made by the leaders with input from people affected.

The Forgotten Risk

One risk many leaders don’t consider is the risk of not involving people in the decision-making process. If you hold onto every decision, what are you putting at risk? I’d propose two primary risks:

  1. You don’t know everything. You at least need input from others who have different perspectives on the situation and experiences from which to draw.
  2. You can alienate your people. If you don’t involve them in decisions that affect their work and destiny, they will tend toward feeling disempowered and disengaged, which spells disaster for effectiveness, efficiency, creativity, and retention.


Mastering the art of delegation is a vital skill for leaders, and you will need a nuanced and risk-aware approach to be successful. By assessing the potential impact of decisions and categorizing them within the "Delegation Tree," leaders can determine the most appropriate level of delegation, balancing engagement with potential risks. 

I recommend finding a few other leaders looking to work on these skills and banding together as a cohort. Talk regularly, exploring the risks, delegation approaches, and results so you can challenge and encourage one another. Leadership is not a solo endeavor.

As you persist in honing your delegation skills, you will contribute not only to your own effectiveness but also to the empowerment, engagement, and success of your teams and organization.

All the best on your leadership journey!

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