my boss won’t delegate work to me

A reader writes:

For the past 6 months, my direct supervisor and I have been running what is typically a 6-person department. Due to a limited budget and slow hiring, we have been set adrift on our own with a lot of pressure from above to meet our department goals. I should also note that I have only been in this position for 9 months.

It is the busiest time of year for us and we have 3 new employees (including a new director) and my boss is a stressed-out mess. While I sympathize with her situation, she has also refused to teach me two key skills/tasks that only she knows how to do. Even worse, at this time of the year, those two tasks make up about 90% of the workload and it all falls on her. Her explanation for not being able to teach me these tasks is that she doesn’t have time and that I won’t understand how to do well it for several months…so she doesn’t bother even showing me the basics, even though I have the capability to do it.

While I do my best to help her out by training the other employees and trying to make the process smoother for her, I am pretty useless at this point. This is especially difficult when she has panic attacks and crying fits at the office about how much work she has and stays at the office from 8 am until 10 pm every day. I have also become the person who she “unloads” on when she needs to complain about other employees or the organization, which makes me hate my job even though the job really isn’t all that bad.

How can I persuade her to delegate tasks if she refuses to even begin training me or any of the other employees? And is it wrong of me to be frustrated and less and less sympathetic of her plight as a little delegation on her part would take a lot off her shoulders if only she were willing? Should I bring this topic up with our new director even if it means she might get angry with me for speaking about her?

You can read my answer to this question — along with answers from three other experts — over at the Fast Track blog by Intuit QuickBase today.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. LisaLyn

    That is a tough situation. Training someone to do a job is time consuming and there are times when it just isn’t possible, although this specific situation seems a bit extreme. It’s hard to say, however, without knowing just how technical/complex the task is. It could be so specific to the organization that there is no way for the OP to learn it otherwise, which just makes it worse.

    My department was in this situation. We were horribly overworked and were finally able to hire a new person, but no one had the time to train him for the first few months. It’s been three years and he still harbors some resentment about it, which is unfortunate. My only advice to the OP is just to not take it personally.

  2. Ann O'Nemity

    Sounds like a bad manager who lacks the ability to plan, delegate, and retain professional composure. I know that sounds harsh, but the OP has been there for *9 months* and the manager has failed to train them for tasks that take up 90% of the work during the busiest season. Further, the manager is using the OP as an emotional support instead of allowing them to actually help with some of the workload. I agree with Alison that the OP needs to have a serious talk with the manager to address this situation asap.

    1. Briggs

      This was my first thought too: it’s been 9 months. People get promotions in that length of time. Surely the manager here could have found some time to begin training before now.

      Also, assuming the manager has been in their role more than a year (since the work appears to be seasonal), they should have had some warning that this was coming and should have been preparing for it.

      Of course, pointing out how badly the manager planned for this doesn’t really help the current situation, and I think Alison gave good advice here. I really wish I knew what kind of specific training the OP needs, and whether it’s available somewhere else (like learning a software program via online tutorials), or if the manager is the only possible source of training here. I agree that the OP should try to train themselves if that’s possible, but if it isn’t, then talking to her manager (and if that doesn’t work, her manager’s manager) is really the only option for any relief.

      It might help if the OP offers to stay late with the manager to receive this training. I wonder if she’s done that yet. The manager is already staying late, so if OP offers to commit the same kind of time short term, maybe it will help alleviate some of the extra stress of training her during a busy time.

  3. Regular but anoymous on this one

    Uggggghh.

    Happening to me right now, although she’s not my supervisor. Resistant to change, has handled a lot by herself until I and another person who does a job like hers was hired, now training THAT person…

    I’ve been trying to get her to let me do some of the tasks I can do (and am supposed to be doing, like sending out the deliverable), but she still clings to doing it her way. She’ll say “Oh, we need this change; I’m soooo glad to have help,” and then in the next breath, “Oh we’ve always done this.” I work regular office hours but she works early and late, so I actually may not be there when the deliverable is finished and I think she just sends it. There’s one thing she does that they were hoping I could take over, but it’s different every time, and we haven’t hit on a good way to train me on it yet. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the deliverables, which I CAN handle.

    I don’t blame her for being stressed, but I’ve already shown her I can do it. I guess I’ll just have to be patient with her. I already got yelled at today for checking in and letting her know I was ready for the next phase of Current Project. :P I didn’t mean to push but I guess that’s how it came off.

    1. Ruffingit

      Sounds to me like she may be feeling threatened and is just generally resistant to change. She probably sees herself as the “go-to” woman of the organization and while she acknowledges she needs help, she’s refusing to actually take it when offered.

      Might help to sit down with her and address these issues head on. For example “It would really be helpful to me if you would allow me to send out the deliverables as that is something I’ve been asked to do as part of my workload and I know you have so many other things on your plate. You’ve been sending out the deliverables instead so I’m wondering what concerns you have regarding those? Let’s talk about it.”

      Some people will take well to that kind of discussion, others won’t, but there’s got to be some change made here whether that’s her allowing you to actually do your job or you just looking for another job entirely. I hope it doesn’t come to the latter being the only choice.

    2. Jazzy Red

      You might have to butter her up to get anything from her. If she really does know what she’s doing, then you can be completely sincere in acknowledging her skills and experience, and letting her know that you want to learn it “her” way. If you can compliment her (especially to other people), she might start to see you as an ally and less of a threat.

  4. Jamie

    I see both sides of this. I used to have a much harder time with delegation (and while far from perfect I’m much better now… (anyone remember John Astin’s character Buddy in Night Court? Just me..oh well…)

    There are tasks that take a long time to train, if they have a lot of moving parts, and you have to master A before even starting training on B, etc. And there are some which are so important you won’t fly solo for several months, so I can tell you the boss is feeling that doing it herself is the path of least resistance and the idea of training someone while she’s so busy is beyond daunting.

    But this is 90% of the departments work and she’s having panic attacks in the office? Despite her control issues she’s no longer in control. Alison was correct in her answer that this will be apparent to the new director.

    You can’t force this hand – just be willing and available and meet to ask if there are at least smaller tasks related to the job you can learn. When you do well with those she may become more comfortable giving you more.

    When I had serious trouble delegating it wasn’t necessarily because I thought I would do a better job than someone else, or that my control issues meant I was most comfortable if I did it myself (although that was a factor) a lot of it boiled down to the fact that I was (and am) MUCH better at doing stuff than training. I am not bad at training, and people have said nice things…but I’m not as comfortable with it as I am with other stuff. So the old saying about it being easier to just do it myself, well, it was.

    What turned it around for me is when I was able to delegate to people who didn’t need hand holding and a million follow ups…people who were really competent and I saw how much more I could get done when I wasn’t sweating every single task big and small.

    1. College Career Counselor

      Buddy sure had some good qualities. Including a REGULAR PROGRAM OF GOOD DENTAL HYGIENE!

      1. Mary Terry

        A regular program of good dental hygiene… wouldn’t we ALL be “much better now” if we followed this?

        That’s two of us Jamie, who got the reference. (I LOVED Night
        Court!)

  5. HR lady

    Ugh – I think I was the manager in this situation in an old job, several years ago.

    I’m trying to remember what caused the turning point. I think it was one of my employees asking for more work, and gently telling me that since I’d already trained her how to do X, she could figure out XA, since they were pretty similar. I just don’t remember how she said it, or what she said. But once I gave her the XA thing, that seemed to break the pattern in my mind and I felt much better about giving her more and more.

    I also let go of (or maybe she encouraged me to let go of) the need to train her on each little thing; she was smart and she figured out most of the big task I’d been avoiding training her on (because I didn’t have time to train her). After she tried to do it herself, she only had a couple of questions, and they were much easier for me to answer than to try to sit down and train her from start to finish.

    Do try to take initiative to figure things out yourself. If she lets you try something on your own, don’t immediately come back to her with questions. Try to figure out as much of it as you can first, and then only come to her with one or two questions. If you come to her with a bunch of questions, especially things you could have figured out on your own, that’s just going to verify her thinking that it’s too hard for her to train you on it right now.

    Also, depending on how your office works, it might not work well for you to ask a ton of other coworkers how to do something. One or two should be fine, but before doing that, first try to figure it out on your own. If I was that manager and two or three people said “Hey, OP asked me if I know XYZ about the TRP files so I showed him” I would be annoyed that you were “bothering” so many other people for something I know I should be showing you (but I’m stressed out because I can’t).

    1. Andrea

      Er, yeah, I’ve been that manager also. Not quite to the extent the OP writes (although I don’t know what would have been written about me), and without the tears. What got through to me was an employee sitting down with me and saying, to the effect, “This can’t go on. I’m here to help you. Trust me.”

      I’d like to tell you what happened next because I don’t remember. I taught whatever I had to teach, she picked up the work, the world didn’t end and if there was an extra rough spot or time crunch during the transition, I don’t remember it all these years later. I just remember I got help!

      No there’s never enough time to train somebody when you can do it faster yourself, right up until the moment where the hours run out on the clock and there’s not enough time to do it yourself either. Even though I’ve been in recovery for this issues for years, I *still* find myself falling back into old patterns. Just this month I made myself shed five responsibilities on my quite qualified staff, blocking off a chunk of time each week to train on each one of them and willing myself to deal with not-exactly-the-way-I-would-have-done-them end results.

      If the OP’s boss is up to crying, “help me, help you” might be the ticket.

  6. Anonicorn

    The fact that your supervisor is the only person who knows how to do certain tasks seems risky to me.

    Maybe you could suggest that she create a how-to document for these tasks, and you (and others) can learn from it. For me, creating a how-to would be much quicker and easier than actually training someone else. And while it would take some of her time to create, you could be working from it and helping decrease her workload in the long term to where she’s only editing your work rather than doing the whole thing.

    1. Del

      Agreed.

      And even if the how-to document doesn’t cover everything, writing up the basics of the information and having the employee review it on their own time would greatly speed up training, since then they could do one-on-one only for the stuff that really needs to be directly demonstrated, if there’s any of that.

      Plus, naturally they should have the how-to anyway. What if something happens to the boss?

    2. Diane

      But she won’t feel she has time to create a document AND train AND do the work. Maybe the OP can offer to create the how-to as she learns the tasks.

      1. HR lady

        This is a great idea, Diane. OP could offer to create the instructions while or after she’s learning.

  7. Jennifer

    Hah, I have one aspect of my job that I still haven’t been trained on and I’ve been here for over a year now. I am told they haven’t done it yet because it is really really super hard and they’re not sure how to train me on it, blah de blah. Hey, if it’s that awful, I’m fine with them taking their time on not doing it–god knows it’s taken months for me to learn most of this job anyway.

    I don’t think it is something that is done most of the year, but a few times now they’ve had OMG EMERGENCY EVERYONE DO THESE RIGHT NOWWWWWWWWWWW moments and that makes it glaringly obvious that there’s a problem. But….that’s the higher-up’s decision and not mine. I can kind of understand the logic of “I am under major stress right now and I cannot deal with adding newbie mistakes and proofreading you to the workload if I train you on this,” though. But at some point when things are quieter, the supervisor needs to freaking do something, even if she can’t afford the training time and newbie mistakes right now.

  8. Ivan Gruer

    Such a bad situation! The explanation “I don’t have time” doesn’t make sense. I would translated it into “I have other priorities”.
    So, in such a situation I would first create awareness to the boss about the problem, that is the first step for any change. For example, by pointing out the situation whenever she is stressed and how this mood impacts the workload (with touch, without criticism and keeping a good mood…that is the toughest part),
    How? I think that this depends on the character of the boss. Why she doesn’t want to delegate? Becasuse she wants to control everything or because she thinks that the reputation is linked with how many tasks she able to accomplished? I would talk with her and make questions in order to understand which are her feelings and concerns. Then, once she is aware about the issue, I will figure out a solution that might attractive for her by talking with her.
    Meanwhile…. I would enjoy such a temporary less tasks demanding work environment till the boss will change her mind ;)

  9. Anonymous

    In your department, what would the consequences be if you were trained to do one of your boss’s tasks, and then made an error when you were doing it for the first time? Would you be held accountable, or would your boss get in big trouble for “not training well enough”?

    I had the same issue as your boss, in a previous job. Our tasks all had a steep learning curve. When the freelancers I supervised were getting up to speed, mistakes were going to happen sometimes, no matter how much time I spent sitting with my freelancers one on one and explaining the process as clearly as I could. There were just so many picky little details to remember, and it was really daunting for someone who’d never done the tasks before. Even my best people screwed up sometimes.

    After a while, I just stopped delegating a lot of my work, because if someone made a mistake, not only did the work need to be redone, but I’d get yelled at by my boss and told that it was completely my fault that the error happened. It was easier to just do it myself and spare myself the whole “Wakeen did X incorrectly – what’s the matter with YOU?” rant. I’d rather make the mistake myself.

    If you’ve got a new director, (who I assume is your boss’s boss?), maybe it’s a good opportunity to try and change things. Does she understand the work your department does, and does she understand that it may take some time to get the rest of the team up to speed? Which may result in things getting done more slowly at first, as people learn and as your boss takes time for training? (That was the other issue. My boss would tell me to spend my morning training freelancers to do X. I’d do that, and as soon as I got back to my desk, she’d ask me why I hadn’t spent the morning doing Y. “Because you told me to train Wakeen to do X” was never an acceptable answer.)

  10. Pam

    My current boss has WAY too much on her plate. Instead of just taking projects from her, I offer to “draft” items for various projects. For example, she recently told me she needed to speak to our Big Bosses about approval for a project I was working on. I told her I would draft a memo if she would like. This seems to work well for us. Even though I’m the one actually doing the work, she has final power in veto/changes/delivery of message. I think “let me draft this for you” comes off way better to a supervisor than “let me do this for you”. Of course I don’t personally care to get credit for said work and sounds like OP does, so it may or may not be a good solution.

    1. Zahra

      I was going to suggest something similar. Offer to do drafts, corrections for grammar errors, formatting, printing, mailing, etc. It might not be much, but it will familiarize you with her work and put you in a better position to learn these tasks after the rush has passed. And, you know, 10 minutes here, a half hour there, it adds up in a day or a week and may make her days a bit shorter.

      If it’s a repetitive task and you have time on your hands, ask her for previous year/quarter/month’s input AND output, so you can see the process and learn as much as you can before you’re trained. Who knows, you may be able to suggest some streamlining. I know that I took over a task at a previous job that would take a week to do in our less busy months (sending renewal notices for insurance). People would get an Excel file with the information and enter it by hand in Word. I put in some mail merge functions, some formatting procedures and it took me a day (two on the busiest months). Heck, just using Copy/Paste Special would have been faster than what they were doing!

  11. The Other Dawn

    I’ve been in this situation and all I can say is it’s very tough. For several years I was the manager who was working long hours and was completely and utterly overwhelmed. I work in a very small company and as anyone in s small company knows, you wear many hats and have to cover when you’re between employees, etc. And when a new hire came along, that added to the workload even more because now I have to find the time to train the person in addition to doing the work. I finally realized, though, that if I didn’t start handing the work over, there would be no reason to keep the new hire and I would be forever in the same stressful situation. So while it caused some more long hours for me in the short term, eventually the new person was up to speed and I was working normal hours again.

  12. S.A.

    I’d suggest that in the very short term, while in the busiest period possible, asking her what the boss needs done instead of insisting that she hand over things she’s uncomfortable doing. If you have any shared duties, offer to take 100% of something you’re already trained on over while she’s busy or offer to catch phone calls/visitors to the office. Anything that she feels comfortable delegating to you- couch it as, “What would make life easier for you right now?” because she’s clearly seeing the project she’s holding onto as top priority. As someone who used to be in a situation WAY too busy to train people most of the time, I really appreciated it when someone asked, “What can I do to make this easier for you?” instead of asking/telling me, “Let me do this for you!”

    If the thing she’s working on is a report or e-mails, maybe ask that, when she’s done for the day or at the end of the project, to CC you on the results- that way you can see either the latest updates to the project or the finished project itself and you can ask her about it when she has time to train you later. That way, you can see what’s either in the process of being done or has been done and there is the expectation that later, when things have cooled down, you’ll be trained on it.

  13. Jazzy Red

    Oh wow. The manager is going to torpedo her own career at this company with this attitude, and possibly the OP’s career there as well. I can’t imagine a director allowing something like this to go on.

    I agree with everyone who said that the OP should get a little more assertive with her manager, and keep trying to pry some of that work out of her hands. If that doesn’t work, the OP should talk to the director (once the director has had some time to settle in), and explain how things are (not) being run in her department.

  14. kristinyc

    Right now I’m the only person at my company who knows how to do my job (email marketing). For a long time, that meant that I wasn’t able to take a lot of vacation days in a row, and if I did, I’d end up working during them.

    So, I created a lot of documentation for the very basic things, and asked for an internal part timer (we have a program for our customer service team to get experience in other areas of the company with quarterly “special projects,” where they can spend a certain number of hours per week helping out in a different department to learn more about it/possibly eventually move to it full time when there’s a position open). I’ve been able to delegate a lot to her, and she’s even found ways to improve a lot of processes that I was doing manually.

    Friday was my birthday and I was able to take my 4th vacation day all year (and we have unlimited vacation days…), and it was my first time being able to remove my work emails from my phone for a weekend. Amazing.

    In short – yes, try to convince her that documentation/ a little bit of training for other people will make her life immensely better. It will. It’s hard to let go of certain tasks when you do them really well, especially when they’re not done well, it can be very public. I know I sleep better knowing that there’s some level of coverage if something happened to me. That’s part of the burden of really caring about your job. :/

  15. Brton3

    I have a somewhat similar situation. I have been in my job less than a year, and my boss feels a strong sense of ownership of certain tasks and, especially, certain relationships. I totally understand this but I really feel like there’s a lot of stuff I could take off her plate if she were more open to it. It’s not a question of her being too busy to train me. I have gently but consistently offered to take on certain projects or at least be present for certain meetings. She continues to rebuff my offers but I’m not going to stop unless I get a clear signal from her about it, because I know our organization will be better off if she didn’t have to handle some of this smaller stuff and could focus more on other things.

  16. Rana

    And this is the flip side of the boss from #1 of the previous post: a boss who won’t delegate, as opposed to one her employee thinks delegates too much.

  17. Anonymous

    Alison, I thought your advice on this situation (“talk to her”) was spot-on. I have to say that I question some of the other advice that was given though. Just start doing the work without asking/telling her? If a subordinate of mine asked if they could help with a project, I told them no, and then they did it anyway, I wouldn’t be very happy with that person.

    1. Gjest

      I had the same reaction…I didn’t agree with that advice at all. I can see that just pissing off the boss, especially if she’s already stressed out and therefore probably has very little tolerance for BS.

      1. Jessa

        Me too, I didn’t think that was the best idea. But the shadowing one has possibilities. You can learn a lot just by watching someone do certain tasks. Sitting through certain meetings. And the idea about talking to her later in the day is good too. Even maybe “look boss I notice you stay late a LOT. Even if you don’t want to pay OT, maybe you want to switch my schedule for a week or two and have me come in later and stay later WITH you. I can help with the scut work and maybe you can teach me a few things when it’s quieter.” Yes that means you get stuck with different hours for a bit and that puts you out. But it makes you a BIG team player if it works.

    2. Esra

      I’ve noticed the shared response articles are a mixed bag. Sometimes I’m wincing reading the other responses.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, I don’t agree with that either.

      (I kind of like it when the responses in those “360 answers” aren’t all in agreement though, since it would boring if all four of us said the same thing. )

      1. Jessa

        Yeh but it would be nice if you were all trending in a similar direction. One sticking out in a strange way would lead me to wonder if their advice was as good as the rest of you. I mean best practises should generally trend in one direction or so.

    4. Cassie

      I agree. My boss has asked me to lead a couple of projects with a coworker helping me. The coworker will ask me if she can do something (e.g. change a template), I tell her to just use the template as is, and she changes it anyway. It drives me crazy.

      It’s dicey to take initiative unless you know that your boss is fine with it. If it were me and my boss, he would be totally fine with it. But the coworker I mentioned above now has a reputation of being arrogant – I think it’s because she will make suggestions and our faculty (and staff) don’t take too kindly to unsolicited advice from someone who is not all that familiar with the way we do things. It’s not that her ideas are awful – she means well and there are some useable parts in her ideas. It’s just that she comes off as acting like she “knows more” than the rest of us, and that’s particularly what is aggravating for faculty.

      1. Andrea

        Oh god, Cassie, pet peeve. People as you describe generally don’t work out because they are more focused on their ideas than how they can fit in and help the bigger picture. What happens next is co-workers and bosses avoid including them because they are too draining to work with, and the employee becomes resentful.

        ” It’s not that her ideas are awful – she means well and there are some useable parts in her ideas.”

        What I try to do is take some extra time to explain why XYZ won’t work but ABC is helpful, and DEF might work some time in the future. People as you describe aren’t looking at the *context* their ideas would be applied in (or they can’t interpret the context accurately). I’m nice about it the first time, then after that, less so to the “do not ever change the template again” level if necessary.

        At which point he writes off to a business blog on the internet complaining about his inflexible witch of a boss who won’t even let him change the template. :)

        But some people do respond and improve if you take some time to help them see the context.

        1. Andrea

          Also, one more thing I’ve found. You must speak very, very clearly to the quasi innovators, because their problem in the first place is not being able to pick up on context. They will never hear you if you aren’t direct.

          “Nice” people don’t quash other people’s ideas, no matter how random or non useful the ideas are. It’s socially uncomfortable to be direct, so most times the person will hear a vague “let’s look at that next month” or the standby curt “we don’t do it that way” (which deflects the responsibility from the speaker).

    5. MR

      Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Alison’s work for so long, but as I was reading the other responses, I was thinking to myself ‘Yeah, Alison is going to go in a different direction than these other people.’

  18. Cubicle Baby Voice

    I am curious if your manager doesn’t want to train you because she doesn’t have the time or it’s because she is insecure?

    My senior not supervisor deliberately could not train me on certain accounting/tax projects because he doesn’t want to give up that power. Everything I’ve learnt it was on my own. Make sure you understand which is which.

  19. Vicki

    OP: Instead of asking for “training”, could you say “I would like to sit and watch you do these tasks. I will take notes and not ask questions until the task is completed.”

    In other words, full-immersion practical training where the job is actually getting done at the same time.

    And realize that if you can’t get the training (or do get the training but your boss won’t ever hand over the work) this may be one of those “time to look for another job” situations. :-(

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