People Management Basics: How to Assign Tasks to Your Subordinates

People Management Basics: How to Assign Tasks to Your Subordinates

Why a Manager Should Know How to Assign Tasks to Subordinates

Can competent task assignment skills help grow a unicorn?

Perhaps every startup founder wants to grow a unicorn. But how to do that? What to focus on? Should founders and managers focus on basic people management skills, for example, on competent assignment of tasks?

Seems like these days founders and top managers are focused mostly on opportunities that arise from innovative technologies, such as: digitalization, artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, IoT, augmented reality, and so on.

Will it help their startups to become unicorns?

No doubts, new technologies bring a lot of business opportunities, competitive advantages and dramatically change our lives.


What do world-class management scientists say?

However, the research of Sloan School of Management, Stanford University and Harvard Business School professors (published in the September–October 2017 issue (pp.120–127) of Harvard Business Review) shows: «it doesn’t matter how brilliant its strategy is, if a firm can’t get the operational basics right».

They studied 12,000 firms in 34 countries and discovered that good operational management correlates with strong performance, as follows:

  • +25% faster annual growth
  • +75% productivity

They also have discovered, that:

  • Only 6% of firms have exceptionally good management
  • Management quality is significantly higher in organizations where the CEO is more dedicated to employees, than to external stakeholders
  • Achieving operational excellence is still a massive challenge for many organizations
  • Competent management is not easy to replicate. Mainly due to resistance to organizational change
My experience working with managers in more than 20 countries

It’s hard to measure exact percentage of managers who assign tasks improperly. Because each manager may assign dozens of tasks every day. Some may be assigned correctly, some may not. It is difficult to collect consolidated statistics for a region or country.

However, according to my experience, the number of incorrectly assigned tasks is much greater. And the percentage of managers who do not know how (or do not want to spend time) to assign tasks to subordinates correctly also significantly exceeds the percentage of those who do this properly. In terms of figures, I witnessed how incorrectly assigned tasks led up to 6-digit losses for business.

That is why I am convinced this topic worth attention of managers of any level and experience.

Main Misbelief Among Managers’ When They Assign Tasks to Subordinates

Some managers stay under the misbelief that subordinates must follow their instructions. Just because: “I am your manager, so you must do what I said.” 

I think this delusion exists because some managers do not want to take into account the simple fact that people are not robots. People tend to have free will and their own opinion, based on their experience. Thus, they are not willing to blindly follow instructions with no idea what they are doing and why. They may not admit this to their manager directly, but may quietly sabotage her/his tasks. Thereby, you as a manager and leader must sell your idea to subordinates, persuade them to follow you and your instructions, explain why and what you expect them to do, giving employees a certain freedom of creativity in choosing the way to accomplish an assigned task.

Assign or Delegate?

On various online learning platforms and in popular business media you may encounter some articles on management where “to assign” and “to delegate” are being used as interchangeable synonyms. Whereas these concepts are not indeed identical.

The main differences between “to assign” and “to delegate” concepts in management

Concept name Concept scale Used in relation to
to assign narrower  tasks and duties
to delegate broader authority / responsibility / resources / tasks / duties


Thereby, delegation is a broader concept, which includes: 

  • Granting of authority and resources
  • Creating responsibility
  • Assignment of tasks and duties

Thus, delegation is the distribution of authority (responsibility comes from authority) and resources to your subordinates, while they accept accountability to you for their performance.

Basic Algorithm of Assigning Tasks to Subordinates

If you would like your subordinates to accomplish your tasks in strict accordance with your instructions, you must assign the tasks by following these 5 stages:  
Basic algorithm of assigning tasks to subordinates
# Stage name Stage idea What exactly a manager should do?1
1 Motivation Remove possible resistance and encourage employee interest to the task Explain why this task is important.  Describe what will happen to the results of an employee’s work at the next stage and who and how will be affected. Explain to your subordinate why you entrust this task specifically to her/him, admit her/his strengths and achievements. Ask the right questions and listen to the answers. 
2 Explanation Provide detailed explanation of the task objective following SMART criteria Explain a task in details. Make sure that the task objective is specific, measurable, achievable, result oriented and time-bound
3 Verification Ensure that your subordinate understands the task exactly as you intended Ask the right questions and listen to the answers
4 Acceptance of Responsibility A subordinate confirms that he accepted responsibility Ask the right questions and listen to the answers
5 Notation Assign the task in written in your company task/project management software system Assign the task in written. Make sure that the written task objective meets SMART criteria

¹ In this article, obviously, I can share only general recommendations. If you are looking for exact step-by-step action plan relevant to your unique situation, I would advise you to engage a personal mentor or coach. Thus, you will get recommendations that suit your particular case.

Key Skills for Successful Implementation of the Algorithm in Managers' Daily Work

As you can see at 3 stages out of 5 a manager should ask the right questions and listen to the answers. However, according to my experience, some managers are confident that: “Listening is what a subordinate should do. And a manager should give instructions and orders.” This is a widespread errancy. In reality, active listening skills and ability to ask the right questions are among the most important competencies of a manager. It may take years to develop these vital skills if a manager will decide to learn the hard way. Still, there is an easier and shorter way, but it will require investment in training under the guidance of a mentor or a coach.

Important Recommendations Regarding Assigning Tasks to Subordinates 

The algorithm above is a necessary base. However, in addition to this base, there are several important recommendations that may significantly affect the success of a task. So, I would recommend every manager to take the following into account when assigning a task to a subordinate: 

  1. Availability of resources (money, time, people, technology and information) to complete the task. If the resources belong to another employee or manager in the company, then you need to coordinate with him the transfer of the required amount of these resources to the task performer.
  2. To discuss a problem is much better than to give an order. Modern competent leaders never order. Because it’s not effective. The main problem with orders is that an employee does not know why and who needs the result of his work. It demotivates. In addition, orders do not allow the employee to analyze the situation, show initiative and take responsibility. Therefore, the employee will not be focused on the result. Moreover, if something goes wrong, the employee will not try harder and will not take the initiative to remedy the situation. In the end, the employee does not develop, so does not the company. Thus, the manager with his own hands (orders) destroys motivation of subordinates, blocks professional growth of employees and suppresses company development.
  3. In contrast, modern competent leaders explain a problem or a task objective to an employee. Then listen to her/his ideas and discuss them. Thus the employee can implement her/his ideas, which rises motivation and interest to the task. Moreover, this approach provides a perfect opportunity for professional growth of subordinates.

  4. Leave plenty of space for initiative. Safeguard the opportunity for employees to find their own creative approach to achieve the task goal. Encourage initiative. Never ever go in for micromanagement.


“Never ever go in for micromanagement”


  1. Ask employee open-ended questions. While discussing a problem or a task objective with your subordinate do not give ready-made solutions. Instead ask open-ended questions, for example:
    1. How do you plan to solve the problem (achieve the objective)?
    2. What approaches, in your opinion, can be applied to solve the issue (fulfil the task)?
    3. Which approach do you prefer?
    4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?
    5. Which potential risks may arise?
    6. What help do you need from me or other colleagues?
  2. This is a great way to raise your authority among subordinates, because thereby you demonstrate trust, allowing your team to analyze the problem, as well as to assess risks and choose their own action plan to solve the issue or to achieve the objective. Moreover, in this way you as a manager develop your own coaching skills. 

    By the way, in some cases, when the cost of a mistake does not exceed a value of a lesson learned, you can consciously allow an employee to make the mistake. Sometimes these lessons are the most effective way to teach and learn. And sometimes it is cheaper than conducting a master class with an external coach.

    A manager who allows his subordinates to learn by making mistakes in a controlled environment is a priceless diamond. If you are lucky enough to work alongside a manager like this, her/his lessons will become, perhaps, the most outstanding experience in your professional career. Do not miss the opportunity to become such a leader for your own team.


“A manager who allows his subordinates to learn by making mistakes in a controlled environment is a priceless diamond. Do not miss the opportunity to become such a leader for your own team”


  1. Performance control. Inform the employee how you will control the execution of the task. Will there be an intermediate control? What report form you need? If in written, in which format?
  2. Be positive and polite with subordinates. Negative or arrogant tone of speech, increase in voice or shouting, insults and threats when assigning tasks to employees are all signs of manager’s incompetence. Tasks that were assigned in such a way will not be performed well, and the team will not be highly productive. If you notice such destructive behavior in yourself, then you need to develop your self-control and people management skills. It’s too early for you to manage a team.
  3. Provide feedback. Do not forget to thank your subordinate or team, if the work is done really good. Recognition of merit (even with the ordinary "thank you") is important for strengthening your authority and influence as a leader.
  4. In case your team or subordinate failed, provide constructive feedback. Find out an 8-point checklist for a manager on how to deal with employee mistakes in my article “People Management Basics: How to Deal with Employees’ Mistakes.”

Common Mistakes in Assigning Tasks to Subordinates

If you do not follow the algorithm and important recommendations when you assign a task to an employee, then there are very small odds that your task will be done according to your expectations. Each of the common mistakes comes from breaking the algorithm or recommendations described above. 

Here are the most common mistakes that I have encountered consulting managers:

  1. Using orders and instructions instead of asking questions and listening to answers 
  2. Asking closed-end questions
  3. Assumption that subordinates should guess what you mean
  4. Ignoring SMART criteria
  5. Assigning a task completely ignoring one or more stages from the algorithm above
  6. Replacing specific deadlines with indistinct terms, for example: “quickly,” “urgently,” “when you have time,” “need to be done yesterday”, etc.
  7. Providing no examples and clarifications
  8. Not discussing alternatives
  9. Not answering employee’s clarifying questions. As well as providing formal or aggressive answers, for example: “Because I said so!” 
  10. Ignoring well done work
  11. Asking another person to fulfil the same task

Modern Mass Propaganda of Managerial Incompetence

A very good example of how managers should not assign tasks to their subordinates you may find in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). 


Still from the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
Still from the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)

In this movie you can find 10 out of 11 common mistakes I mentioned above. And the consequences of assigning tasks in such a way are very much softened in the movie. In real life, you would not be able to complete a single task assigned to you in such a way.

Unfortunately, there are too many bosses who assign tasks in a way depicted in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). 

In my opinion, this movie is a good example of modern mass propaganda of managerial incompetence (you may read more about this problem in my article “Why Develop Your Managerial Competence, When You Can Just Throw a Chair in Subordinate’s Head?”). 

Sadly, our society underestimates the power and menace from such managerial incompetence propaganda.  As a result, we may admit an increase in the number of managers who do not know how to assign tasks to subordinates competently. Or even worse: some managers know it, but nevertheless are convinced that this knowledge is useless.


I strongly believe that despite of all the difficulties the number of competent managers will grow thanks to the hard work of many management scientists and practitioners around the world. Therefore, in particular, more tasks will be assigned competently. And this, in turn, will lead to:

  • more satisfaction from work
  • healthier environment in your team or company
  • growth in the quality of work
  • increase in labor productivity
  • decrease of losses from managerial incompetence

To my mind, all these positive changes will result in noticeably enhanced advantages and key business indicators of every company. 

Besides, according to the research of leading business schools and universities I mentioned above, leaders who have focused on strengthening their managerial competencies (i.e., assigning tasks to subordinates, building a competent salary policy, dealing with employees’ mistakes) increase chances for their companies to get +75% productivity and +25% faster annual growth.