Delegation 101: Setting Clear Expectations

Many of us are now facing a second year working from home. Along with the new year may come new roles, responsibilities, goals, or just the need to re-energise a team.

In this world of video-chat and instant-messaging, many of us find a little something is lost.  Even if we’ve been doing ok, it can seem just a bit more difficult to operate at full speed.  This may be even more challenging if your team members are not all direct-reports.

Setting clear goals and expectations is going to be more important than ever to getting the results you want this year. If you’ve never thought about delegation and expectation-setting formally, this article is a critical starting point. Even if it’s old-hat, I hope you’ll find this conversation a helpful reminder.

What do you want?

Before you can set expectations, achieve alignment, and live happily ever after, you need to figure out what it is that you want. What does success look like?

Consider both external objectives and internal goals.

If you are doing annual planning, it’s great to consider the big picture. However, the approach we discuss will also work for near-term objectives.

What does success look like for the team?

What do individual team member(s) need to contribute?

If the answers didn’t immediately jump into your mind, give it some thought. It’s also a good idea to write these goals down – they are easy to forget when you’re in the trenches 9-5.

Clearly communicate the expectation

Now that you have identified what you want and expect, you need to communicate that clearly.

Speak with the person whose help you need.  

It’s often best to start with a very simple, clear, statement of the expectation. 

The ideal expectation is SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bounded. You don’t always need all five, but using that quick checklist can help you to frame ideas more clearly. 

For example “How’s that fizzbuzz automation project going?

Is much less clear than “I’d like you to complete that fizzbuzz automation project by the end of the month.

Get buy-in

Next, get buy-in: “can you do that?

It’s the buy-in, commitment that “yes, I can do that”, which forms the social contract.  The easiest way to get this is to explicitly ask.

While it is important to provide context, one trick I’ve learned is not to get into too much detail before you get buy-in. There are two reasons for this:

  1. If every little detail is critical, then this person is on the fence. If possible, find someone more interested.
  2. Once someone is committed, the goal you are describing is her goal. She will be listening with that in mind, engaged and already starting to solve the problem. This is much more productive than you making a sales pitch.

Once you have buy-in, of course, you want to provide as much context as possible. Commit to have the person’s back to help them succeed and follow through on that commitment. It is, however, best to put clear ownership for progress and getting help with the person you are delegating to: “I’ve got your back, let me know if you run into any problems.”

Asking vs telling

In cases where a request isn’t optional and you anticipate pushback, it is best to be clear from the start. Tell people what the expectation is and ask only what help they need to achieve it. You don’t want to get into a habit of “asking, then telling” as it will undermine your credibility.

That said, it’s rare that folks are unwilling to sign up for work that is a part of their jobs. You’ll also get a higher level of commitment when people buy-in voluntarily.  Because of this, I err on the side of asking. An occasional backtrack is still better than routinely managing by decree.


Immediately after communicating a new expectation, create a reminder for yourself to follow-up. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. A calendar reminder
  2. A to do list
  3. A document or meeting – for short-term goals you might add it to an upcoming 1:1 or other meeting agenda

This step is important for two reasons:

  1. Short term, this ensures that any tactical goals don’t fall through the cracks.
  2. Long term, your team and even your peers will be more likely to honour their commitments to you if they know that you consistently follow up.


What if someone says no?

One concern new leaders often have about this strategy is asking for buy-in. What if you don’t get it?

As mentioned above, in many cases you want to accept no for an answer and assign the work to someone more interested.  Although a pattern of this can be a performance issue, it’s best not to read too much into any one instance.

Other times, failure to get buy-in is a signal to you that something is wrong. Ask what the person would need to get onboard. In many cases the answer will turn out to be a misunderstanding of the scope, or a concern that they lack the time or skills to meet the new expectation. These are reasonable concerns and by identifying them now, you can work through them.

What about the rare cases where you still fail to get buy-in to what you consider a mandatory part of someone’s role?  It’s a good idea to pause the conversation: “let me think about what you said and follow-up tomorrow.” There’s a good chance one or both of you is a little frustrated by this point, which will make further communication more difficult. Additionally, you did ask for buy-in; in this moment, in this conversation, you have to be prepared to take no for an answer.

Take some time to rethink the delegation request. With luck you or your team member will identify some oversight and resolve the difficulty. Perhaps, on reflection, the ask wasn’t appropriate and should be dropped or amended.  In that case you should still follow-up to let the person know and clear the air. If you’ve decided the request really wasn’t a request, you will need to follow-up to clarify that as well. It doesn’t hurt to take an ounce of blame, but then you need to move forward: “After thinking about our conversation yesterday, I realized I wasn’t very clear, I need you to ___ as part of your role as ___.”

People who don’t report to you

Your “dashed line” team members have plenty of expectations from their direct managers and possibly others. In these cases it’s important to rethink expectations a little before you ask:

  • Is your expectation reasonable?
    Generally folks not directly reporting to your team will have less time to devote to your requests.
  • Are your expectations aligned with their role and their manager?
    You have less freedom to set expectations for someone not on your team. 

It’s also important to consider reporting structure when you receive pushback or expectations are not met.  You will have less flexibility to help someone shuffle priorities or receive training when the other priorities are not yours, or the training may not apply to the rest of their role. In these cases it’s important to engage with the person’s direct manager in a constructive way as early as possible. Avoid complaining. Focus on problem solving: what is preventing their team member from meeting your expectations?  How can those roadblocks be removed?

Correcting Expectations

Another common problem is correcting delegations-gone-bad. You weren’t clear about your expectations early, and now a project has gone off the rails.  You’re a good enough manager to realize you share some of the blame, but how do you fix it?

The only approach I know is easy, it’s just not fun. You have to re-delegate. Talk to the person and let him know that things aren’t going as you had expected.  Let him know that you realize you weren’t as clear as you could have been, then proceed from step one: clearly communicate the expectation, get buy-in, and follow-up. It won’t be a fun conversation, but it’s almost always going to be worse if you put it off, so don’t delay.


Setting expectations comes down to clear thinking and clear communication. Decide what you want to achieve and what help you need to achieve it. Communicate those expectations clearly.  Get voluntary buy-in whenever possible, as you’ll receive more commitment and energy.  Always follow-up.  You will prevent short term oversights and people will be more likely to honour commitments when they know you won’t forget them yourself.

Final Words

I can’t talk about delegation without giving a shout-out to

This is not an affiliate link. This is where I first learned to delegate effectively myself, and I still think they have outstanding content.

Put it into action

Starting tomorrow, you can

  1. Write down one new or ongoing goal for your team.
  2. Identify who on your team needs to contribute to that goal. How committed are those people?
  3. Follow the steps above to clearly communicate, get buy-in, and follow-up.


Use the comments section below to share your successes, and let me know what you think. Do you have some great ideas I didn’t mention above? 

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