Management for Scientists: Delegating is Key

By Joanne Kamens

This is the fourth in a 5 part series on Management for scientists.

Once you are responsible for managing others you will only be successful in your role if you become a master at delegating tasks and responsibilities. The manager is not expected to DO all the work she is expected to make sure the work gets done and done well. Involving your team effectively is now your new measure of success. It is imperative that you resist the temptation to “just do it myself” or micromanage you don’t have time for that and you won’t be as productive. For example, the many resources available on the Addgene website didn't come into being through the actions of a single person but through the coordinated efforts of many individuals.

Check out Joanne's Reddit AMA

delegating tasks to a team


Benefits of delegating

The bottom line – delegation allows you to get more done. There are also a host of other advantages to practicing effective delegation skills:

  • The team will be stronger and less dependent on the manager to succeed.
  • More people in leadership roles leads to more ideas, initiative and creative thinking.
  • The team members will be more invested in the projects and outcomes.
  • The quality of the work is often dramatically improved when tasks are distributed appropriately.
  • If team members have opportunities to develop and stretch then they will be happier and more productive in the long run. 

If you are overwhelmed with your to-do list and your team doesn’t seem to have enough to do…you are not delegating enough.

For example, if we need to develop a new plasmid collection page, we certainly don't expect that one person will write all the copy, design every icon, curate all of the appropriate plasmids, and code the entire page. That would be entirely too much work for one person, it would take forever, and the end product would likely be poor quality. Instead, we pull together teams of individuals who enjoy and are experts in each of the individual tasks required to develop the web page. The team manager must then facilitate appropriate communication between members of the team to ensure that no component of the overall project gets left undone or is duplicated. With each component of the project completed by an individual who is a local expert in that task (or has the bandwidth to become an expert) the end result is high quality and the entire process is completed more efficiently.

Listen to our podcast interview with Harvard Medical School researcher Connie Cepko to learn about her management style.

Recipes for delegation success

Remember that there are always things that the manager must do. You can’t delegate the giving of feedback or performance review. You can’t delegate tasks assigned to you and you must usually take on all tasks that involve confidential information. No matter who you delegate to, or what tasks you assign, the manager is ultimately responsible for outcomes. Be ready to support your team and take responsibility if things go wrong.

Here are some important criteria for delegating tasks appropriately:

  • Are the desired goals and outcomes clear? If you don’t have clear outcomes in mind, you won’t be able to communicate these well to the task assignee and this is a recipe for bad outcomes. Clearly articulate the desired outcomes. Begin with the end in mind. Specify desired results.
  • Are you delegating to someone with sufficient skills and experience? Do you think you are giving this responsibility to someone who can do the job. It is good to delegate so the person doing the task will have to learn and stretch a little, but be careful not to go too far.
  • Is the assignee interested in this task? Don’t give out tasks – where possible, include people in deciding what is to be delegated to them. Not all tasks are fun, but getting buy-in when delegating can help ensure successful results. 
  • Can you provide the information and resources needed for the assignment? Setting someone up for failure by delegating is a bad idea.

How do I make sure it goes well?

As with most managerial responsibilities, good communication is at the heart of delegating for success. 

  • Meet regularly before during and after the assignment to discuss goals, expected outcomes, timelines and deadlines. Agree on a way to review project progress. I recommend putting a regular check-in meeting on the calendar even if it is just 15 minutes a week.
  • Clearly identify constraints and boundaries. Where are the lines of authority, responsibility and accountability? What types of issues do you want to know about right away?
  • Provide adequate support. The manager must be available to answer questions. If you are perceived as too busy to be approachable mistakes will be made that could have been prevented.  Make sure everyone understands that no question is “dumb” and that it is better to ask before wasting time.
  • Focus on results. What does success look like? Agree on desired outcomes. Concern yourself with what is accomplished, rather than detailing how the work should be done. Your way is not the only way and may not even be the best way. This facilitates success and trust. Micromanaging is bad for everyone.
  • Document action plans! As a project progresses it is easy to forgot the original plan. Write down your plans in a shared document. Update frequently with progress reports, meeting minutes and plan changes. Written documentation helps make sure everyone is on the same page.

Effective delegation allows you to make the best use of your time and skills. It also ensures that other people in the team grow and develop to reach their full potential in the organization. This will result in more engaged, successful employees who can accomplish great things.


To read more on this topic and for additional best practices try "Why Aren't You Delegating" in the Harvard Business Review. Another excellent blog on delegation tips and practices can be found at the Time Doctor Blog "The Art of Delegation: Developing This Essential Managerial Skill"

Additional Resources on the Addgene Blog

Resources on the Addgene Website

Download Addgene's Management for Scientists eBook

Topics: Science Careers, Management for Scientists

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