Successful delegating

Successful delegation is a two-way process that requires clarity of aims, instructions and the time-span available for the work to be completed.

Delegation will often start with negotiation. Talk to your researcher to make sure they are happy with what they are being asked to do and negotiate with them to establish how much autonomy they will have, how and when they should report back to you, how often you'll be available for consultation and when the task may be considered finished.

At the outset of the task make sure the reporting mechanisms are discussed and agreed. These could be time based (a weekly meeting) or determined by stages of the task. Whatever the criteria, ensure these are fully understood by all involved. The further you are from the day-to-day work on the task, the more important these mechanisms become. Make sure your staff are aware of the standards you expect and the criteria you would use to judge success. In this way they will be working on your behalf rather than completely independent of you.

Don't rush either the delegation process or the task itself. Take time to ensure you have delegated the right job to the right person and that the all aspects, including reporting, are fully understood. Also make sure they have enough time to do a good job. A researcher undertaking a task that is new to them will most likely work at a slower rate than you would. Anticipate that and allow for it; setting unrealistic deadlines for your staff will only lead to corners being cut and mistakes being made.

Give out praise when appropriate and make sure criticism is constructive. How you react to the results of delegation is a key part of team-management. You may have high expectations of the quality of your researcher's work but still make sure you acknowledge work well done and when genuine mistakes are made try and make your criticism fair, objective and constructive.

Be aware of your own power

You are in a position of authority. Even if you have an excellent relationship with your researchers, you still have power over them and this may affect the way in which they communicate with you.

Be aware that researchers under your leadership may find it difficult to:

  • say no to a request:  some staff will gladly accept (or feel obliged to accept) any tasks you give them regardless of how busy they are. Don't assume your staff will refuse an offer of delegation if they already feel overworked
  • admit they don't know: whatever the stage of their career, researchers will come across tasks that they simply have not faced before. It is your responsibility to make sure that the researcher you delegate a task to either has the necessary skills to complete it or that you have put in place arrangements to help them acquire those skills. Ask if they have completed similar tasks in the past and discuss their experiences to get a full picture of their abilities. Perhaps training may be needed before they take on the job. Can they learn the skills by doing? If there are areas they need help with, is there someone else on your research team they could work with initially?
  • admit they don't understand: make sure you always explain the task clearly. Researchers often need far more guidance than principal investigators realise so don't assume your researcher knows the background and process as well as you. Explain what, why, when, how and who. It is better to cover details that they already know than to discover later on that there was a misunderstanding. Anticipate possible pitfalls for them. You will be familiar with the task you are delegating so warn your researchers of problems that may arise so they can look out for them in advance.


Consider ways in which you can make it easier for your researchers to ask for help and admit they are unsure about a task you have delegated. Which of the following would elicit the most honest response?

  1. "There's nothing you don't understand is there?"
  2. "Is there anything I haven't explained well enough?"
  • ask for help: many of the questions your researchers may have about a new task will not necessarily occur to them at the outset. Uncertainties and queries will emerge as part of the process; ensure that you are not only available to talk these through with your researcher but that they also know that referring back to you is fine and not a sign of weakness
  • own up to their mistakes: an inevitable consequence of delegation is that mistakes will be made. Encourage your researchers not to be afraid of mistakes and certainly not to hide them. While you will want to catch errors before they become detrimental to the project, try to resist the temptation to jump in and take control. Allow your researcher to rectify the mistake; encourage them to analyse what went wrong and suggest a solution. When you have agreed the most suitable approach let them resume the work. This will boost confidence, give valuable experience and also make sure they are not afraid to come to you should future problems occur.

Maintaining responsibility

Finally, never forget that delegation does not mean divesting yourself of responsibility. As we have discussed, the extent to which you are involved will vary depending on the experience of the person to whom you have delegated and the importance of the job but, however much responsibility you delegate, you will still need to monitor the tasks and ensure that adequate reporting mechanisms are in place. Achieving the correct balance between delegation and maintaining responsibility is a management skill you will develop.

You may also be interested in pages on delegating within a research team, and what to delegate to a research team