resisting delegating work? here’s how to move more to your team

If you’re like many managers, you sometimes find yourself resisting delegating a piece of work or a responsibility to someone on your team, because you’re worried that it won’t be done well enough. But in most cases, if you give in to this impulse, you’re forfeiting the benefit of having a team, which is to allow you to get better results – in part by having more people doing the work, but also in part to free you up to spend your time on things that only you can do.

Here are some of the most common reasons managers resist delegating and why you should delegate anyway in these cases – along with one time when you shouldn’t.

“They won’t care about it as much as I do.”

Ever feel this way? You might worry that if someone doesn’t care about a responsibility as much as you do, they might not do it with the same sense of urgency or attention to detail. Maybe they won’t put as much energy into it as you want them to. Or maybe you don’t trust that they’ll remember to take care of it regularly if it’s an ongoing thing.

If you have the right person in the role and you’ve correctly set up the task for them (including doing things like talking through how to do it well, what could go wrong, its importance and the context for why it matters), you should be able to trust them to care as much as you do – or at least enough that the work will be well done. If you don’t, that’s a flag to figure out why. Maybe you need to prep them better for the work, or maybe you don’t have the right person in the role.

“They won’t do it the same way I would do it.”

This might be true! And it might end up being to your benefit. Part of the advantage of having a staff is that you’re getting multiple brains to work on a problem and figure out the best way to approach it. Assuming you don’t think that no one will ever have a better, more creative idea than you (you don’t think that, right?), your best bet here is to encourage people to look for better ways to do things, even if they’re different from yours. Your role is to ensure that the outcome is what you need, but it’s often okay if someone takes a different path to get there (as long as they’re not sacrificing things like accuracy, final quality, or service to customers along the way).

“They can’t do it as fast as I can.”

This might be true too! But if you let them try their hand at it, they’ll probably start getting faster at over time.  But even if they don’t, it’s still often going to save your time, which can be better spent on work that only you can do.

“They can’t do it as well as I can.”

Another one that might be true! But if you want to make full use of your team – which will help you get better results in the long-term – you’re going to need to give people opportunities to develop their skills so that they can make larger contributions to the work. That doesn’t mean that you should delegate everything, of course, but it does mean that you should be vigilant about spending your time in the areas where it will pay off the most, not just in the areas where you might be a bit better than a staff member.

Otherwise, you could easily spend most of your days on small things where you add some value and never get to the work where you add the most value – and the latter is what will most powerfully drive your work forward.

“I really enjoy doing it.”

If you truly enjoy a particular task and find it fulfilling, it’s not crazy to hold on to it, as long as it doesn’t drain your energy or keep you away very long from more important work. If something energizes you and makes you like your job more, it can make sense to continue doing it yourself, traditional delegation advice notwithstanding. (But if you find yourself saying that about multiple tasks you should otherwise delegate, that’s a flag to do a gut-check.)

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Snork Maiden*

    Alison should offer an anonymous mailing system, so we can send these, without repercussions, to people above us who need to read these. I’m thinking brown paper envelopes and some sort of drone delivery? Tiny little parachutes?

      1. Cautionary tail*

        Whoops. I just realized this is inbound only. But you get the idea; use a disposable email address…or a big hammer.

    1. Former Diet Coke Addict*

      Let me sign up at once!

      One of my boss’s biggest problems is his unwillingness to delegate anything at all, for fear we will do it wrong. But he won’t give is any feedback or guidance, so when he tells us to do something and we can’t read his mind, it validates his idea that he should never delegate. It’s a vicious cycle, and a dumb one that’s making all his employees miserable.

      1. Artemesia*

        People get to be bosses because they are good at what they do, not because they have a clue about managing people, delegating, etc etc — I know I was terrible at this at first as a manager. It is so much easier to do things you know how to do than things you don’t know how to do, like manage other people.

      2. Leah*

        Yup. I was just thinking that. My boss doesn’t really want to delegate and so tells you that you need to X. Well, you should be doing X while using R as a template and then do Y. I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision or just that the boss has already started doing the task mentally and forgets to include the details. I’m trying to push for more info but there’s only so much I can ask without psychic powers.

    2. BRR*

      And then that awkward moment when somebody writes in and goes “I keep getting anonymous emails from your site, what do I do?”

  2. Ann O'Nemity*

    “They can’t do it as fast as I can.” and “They can’t do it as well as I can.”

    These can be such tempting excuses in the short-term! But long-term, employees won’t learn to improve their speed or quality if I don’t give them the chance to practice.

    1. Chinook*

      “These can be such tempting excuses in the short-term! But long-term, employees won’t learn to improve their speed or quality if I don’t give them the chance to practice.”

      This 100 times! I am currently dealing with in a volunteer choir I coordinate. The most experienced pianist keeps insisting on playing because no one is as good as her or showing up but doesn’t understand that others will show up if they don’t think they are stepping on her toes (their exact words when I have asked them to join us) and, as a result, they will improve with the practise.

      If any organization is going to last for the long term, we have to allow people to be slow and have a learning curve before they can ever hope to take the lead. Even if you have all the training, at some point you have to work without a net and risk failure.

  3. Iro*

    Man my previous manager really needs to read this.

    He rarely delegated, and when he did delegate, he micro managed it. The result was no one on his team felt like they owned anything. Our boss had a laundry list of work that was constantly piling up, our team rapidly lost reputation/exposure (it was a new team). Meanwhile those of us on his team were bored out of our minds trying to come up with our own independent work projects. When we finally did get a report handed off to us, our boss was so busy with all the other work he didn’t delegate that he wasn’t avaialbe to help us succeed at the project.

    In short delegate!

  4. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Isn’t it warranted sometimes, though? I sent a task to a specialist recently, someone we hired just to handle this specific type of task. Days later I get a few lines of text back. So I spent 20 minutes delving into what is supposed to be their area of expertise and came back with much richer and deeper information. It makes me want to just handle requests in that area myself when I know can do so quickly and efficiently.

    1. Rambling Rosie*

      Then you need to train that person, so they can improve the service they give you when you send them work. Give them feedback on the work they did, give them more specific parameters for the task, give them an opportunity to ask questions – whatever will best enable them to know what is working and what isn’t, and to fix it. If you don’t manage them, perhaps their manager needs to be involved here too. But I’d start by going back to them and figuring out why they didn’t do the task as well as you wanted them to.

      If they are being paid to provide this service, they should be able to do it to the levle you require. If they aren’t, that needs to be addressed. Paying them to do it in theory while everyone actually does it themselves because this person isn’t good at it is not a good plan.

  5. Not Fiona*

    My current manager does delegate, and I’m thankful for that! I will echo Chinook and say this is very applicable in the hobby/extracurric field too. I volunteer with an org and one of the others never delegates. One of these people who insists on getting involved and doing too much, and then whines about how they feel burnt out. On top of it all he’s an asshole. Blech.

  6. Mabel*

    I had a different reason for not wanting to delegate. I was worried that if someone else could do parts of my job, then my boss would realize that there wasn’t enough work for me and lay me off. However, that did not happen. My boss said that delegating would free me up to do more interesting work and that they were paying a lot more per hour for my time, so if something could be done by someone else, I needed to turn it over. I did (because I really didn’t have any choice, and, by then, learning to delegate was one of my goals), and it turned out fine. There’s always an article to write or a new project that we haven’t been able to get to because everyone is so busy. I was relieved!

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