how to delegate when you desperately don’t want to let go

If you’re a manager, there’s a high chance that you struggle to delegate and have trouble letting go, especially when it comes to work that you enjoy doing or aren’t sure you trust others to do as well as you.

But you know you’ve got to ease up on the reins to get your other priorities done. How can you delegate when you’re so hesitant to let go?

First, think about why you don’t want to let go. Is it because you don’t trust your team to do the work as well as you would? Or maybe you enjoy doing the work yourself and don’t relish the thought of giving it up. Or maybe you’d like to delegate it in theory but you don’t know where you’ll find the time to train someone to do it well enough.

Once you’re clear on your worries, figure out what it would take for you to be comfortable letting go. A better trained person? The opportunity to review the work before it’s finalized? A detailed conversation with your staff member before the work gets underway, and a checkpoint mid-way through? A commitment to setting aside an afternoon to train someone?

Think, too, about what your role is and what your biggest priorities are. Where is it most important for you to spend your time? Assuming you can’t do everything yourself, you’ll need to delegate some things – and while it sounds obvious, reminding yourself of this can help nudge you to loosen the reins when you’ve got a white-knuckled grip on them. After all, the whole point of having a staff is to get more accomplished because of them – but if you won’t let them take on meaningful pieces of work, you’re forfeiting the power of having a team of people working with you.

From there, if you’re still resisting, try baby steps. That could mean pulling someone into shadow you as an initial step toward letting them take over the work themselves, or delegating a piece of the work but not the whole and seeing how that goes (and then delegating more or all of it if the first piece goes well). For example, if you’re hoping to delegate the writing of your customer newsletter but feel nervous about letting go, you might ask your staff member simply to do an initial draft of the next one, before you commit to fully transitioning the project. You can then see how that goes and move more of the responsibility over as your staff member shows she’s able to handle it.

One more key to loosening the reins: It’s a lot easier to delegate work if you have a strong system set up for managing it, so that you know that you’ll have the chance for input and opportunities to spot any problems. That means that you should be checking in regularly with your staff as work unfolds, giving feedback, and asking questions. Delegating doesn’t mean throwing a project at someone and disappearing – you should stay involved to provide guidance and oversight (with the amount depending on the skills and experience of the person you’ve delegated to).

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Not here!

    My boss doesn’t believe in delegating. I think she sees it as a sign of weakness, or maybe laziness. The result is stultifying.

  2. AnonPi

    Other than forwarding this article to my manager (believe me I’m thinking of how I could subtly do it), I’d love to hear ideas of how to deal with a manager that is like this. She even takes work that a higher up supervisor told her to give to myself or others to do (I’ll usually find out after the fact – or if she gets to where she’s taken on too much and her supervisors complain about work not getting done, then she’ll give it to the person who was supposed to have done it initially). She has huge insecurity issues and has been like this for years. Her supervisors know it and complain about it, but don’t really do anything about it, and now that she’s been made a team leader this year, it’s worse for those under her to handle it.

      1. AnonPi

        Only general remarks – something along the lines of “hey since you have so much going on I’m happy to take on some of the work” or “i’m free and need something to work if you have something i can help with” etc. I don’t feel comfortable being any more direct than that, or at least I don’t know how to phrase it to her. She has a tendency to take things the wrong way, and I wouldn’t trust her not to retaliate by telling the higher ups to let me go (unfortunately I’m in a dicey position since I’m a subcontract and it’s pretty much up to her whether I get to stay or not).

    1. Bee Eye LL

      I worked for years under someone like that, then left for a couple of years. In the meantime, a new department director was named and this guy more or less got demoted (but kept his title and salary) and I was invited back by the new director. Sometimes you just gotta leave.

      1. AnonPi

        Yeah I’ve been looking for another job, this situation here is just crazy all around (has been for years) and with my new team leader/manager it’s just gotten worse. At this point I’m just trying to survive til I can get out.

  3. Paige Turner

    Yeah, I just started a new job that is a newly-created position. No one is used to me being here yet and they generally aren’t giving me more than a day or two’s work per week. I think things should pick up, but right now I have literally nothing to do and I’m worried that they’ll decide that they don’t need me after all (moderately irrational concern). I’m reading this article from the other perspective and trying to spot ways to convince co-workers to give me their work :)

    1. Ad Astra

      Oh yes, I’ve been there. For the first several weeks, I was terribly bored and practically begging to accompany my coworkers to meetings that didn’t directly concern me just so I had something to do. Eventually my boss gave me the keys to our social media and things like that, and then people in other departments noticed I was available, so the work started to pile on.

      If things don’t get better, you might talk to your manager directly about assigning you a “territory” or taking over some coworkers’ tasks, or pitching your own projects. Newly created positions can be tricky because they’ve decided they need you but haven’t always decided how, exactly, to fit you into their workflow.

    2. Elfie

      That’s CurrentJob to a T for me, only I’ve been here for two and a half years. But I’m not bored, I’m just doing tons of work that isn’t what my position was created for. I’m not saying this will happen to you, but in my experience, the problem with newly created jobs is that no-one knows how to manage them – in my case, they don’t know what I’m supposed to do, they’ve never managed a specialist like me, and they really don’t know what I should be producing. I know, but I’m not supported or encouraged to do the things I should be – which is one of the reasons I’m looking for a new job, but that’s a story for another day. Good luck with it, and just keep an eye on your boss – do THEY know what they want from you? And can you help them make the process and deliverables clearer if they don’t?

  4. Amber Rose

    Off topic apologies: Alison, I got my Naturebox in the mail.

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you for the heads up about them.

    Seriously. Thank you!

  5. _ism_

    My boss is currently on a week-long vacation with her daughters & grandchildren, hundreds of miles away from here. Apparently she took her work laptop with her.

    I’m getting at least one email per hour from her on various routine things that we are already handling quite well in her absence. So are my co-workers. HR lady is saying “That woman is INSANE!”

  6. Cristina

    What makes me procrastinate on delegating sometimes is the fact that rather than doing a project, I’d have to think through how to do the task in a step by step way. And then document it. And then figure out how to talk about the higher level context around it. And then break it down into smaller tasks so that I could actually train someone. This is a lot more work than just doing a project, and the actual training part is just a little piece of the prep work needed. My best employees tend to articulate their desire to take on new projects and then actively participate in the learning by doing their own research and documenting their own transition plans. When we work together on the transition it goes much more smoothly.

  7. CrazyCatLady

    I’m not even a manager but I am terrible at delegating. This is, I’ve discovered, mostly because my supervisors are terrible at finding competent hires. It’s data entry, it shouldn’t be that complicated, but the number of people I’ve been handed who can’t do basic things in an Excel spreadsheet and show absolutely no initiative in figuring anything out for themselves is mind-boggling.

    This is made worse by our dept sometimes not having a choice in who we’re given – the company buys out smaller companies and we take on their employees along with their book of business. The most recent one seems to have not been interested in oversight of their employees’ efficiency, at least insofar as the ones that have been shifted to our dept.

  8. Graciosa

    I’m pretty good at handing work off, but the area I really have to watch is more the management systems to monitor it. I have a great team, and I’m used to being able to say, “Chris, can you take care of X?” and just have it get done – or assume it will get done, which causes me to put it out of my mind.

    In theory, this has some good points, but I have had a couple situations where I have checked in on projects and discovered that a team member was running into obstacles that I could remove. I like the initiative of people trying to solve problems themselves, but at some point it’s just causing frustration and a waste of effort. I want them to come to me before it tips over to that point – but this is not always an easy balance to strike.

    If I ever achieve Alisonhood, I will do better at this.

  9. JJ

    I manage 2 analysts and at first, I found it challenging to delegate because when I took over the group, things were being done in an ad hoc / random fashion. It made me feel like I didn’t know what was going on. Once I sat down with my team and standardized operations, it was much easier to delegate. There are a core set of functions that my group does for the company. This is done using a few key systems. Once I figured out the strengths of my team members, it was much easier to delegate tasks and I have confidence that they will get the work done.

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