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Is the Fear of Delegation Getting in Your Way?

Debunking the Six Reasons that Hold You Back

The conversations I have in my leadership consulting about delegation take on the feeling we had as children when we were forced to eat the vegetables gone long cold on our plates. Leaders know they should delegate but abhor the taste (and sometimes even the thought of it).

When prodded, here are the common reasons leaders avoid delegation:

  1. It takes too much time to show someone else how to do it.
  2. It is just easier to do it myself.
  3. The work just won’t get done in the way I do it.
  4. This is too important for someone else to do.
  5. It’s up to me to do this; asking someone else to help indicates my inability to handle the work.
  6. I’ll be resented by the other person for asking them to do more.

Do you see what these reasons have in common? They all center around our perceived need for control and the concern about relinquishing the tight hold on the work at hand. Even more interesting, if you examine them carefully, you’ll see very few stand up to even a modicum of scrutiny.

The excuse of taking too much time is often uttered by leaders who are working unbelievable hours – and are the most in need of freeing time.

It is true that it likely will not be done the way you do it. It is also true that it may get done better.

You may be resented if you dump instead of delegate. People may also be honored to be asked to do something more or be happy to help.

It may be easier to do it yourself in this particular moment. It may be easier in the future if others can also take on this work.

Your work is not to personally do EVERYTHING.

Your work is to ensure that EVERYTHING gets done.

Granted, if you equate busy with valuable, you’ll not want to allow others to learn how to do all those tasks you hold so dear. Not delegating comes with a cost, to your capacity to do other work (often times the more important, strategic work) and others ability to increase their competence and grow.

The longer-term cost for your career is those that are inept at delegating get passed over for more responsibility. For good reason. More responsibility typically comes with a larger staff and wider purview. The inability to effectively marshal the talents and energy of others renders one increasingly ineffective at higher and higher levels in the organization. It is one of the key factors preventing founders of companies from growing as they cling to their baby, they stunt it’s growth.

Let’s look at some ways to reframe our thinking our delegation.

Delegation is different than dumping.

Let’s start with a basic premise: Proper delegation is not dumping. Dumping is asking others to do the work that you don’t want to do. Dumping is handing off the work that you believe is beneath you. Dumping is not getting something done in a timely manner and only then handing it off because you are in a time crunch.

Effective leaders don’t dump. They do delegate well though.

Delegation is not an all or none proposition.

Delegation is a step-by-step process that involves chunking the task into smaller elements, assigning low risk actions, and assessing that person’s ability, interest, and capacity, all in the search of finding the appropriate way to either have them do part (or all) of the task.

Use lower level, lower risk approaches to test how a person might perform. For someone untested, you might ask them to research the situation and bring their findings back to you. You can assess (and coach) their ability to think more broadly about a situation, pursue relevant avenues and sort lots of information into what is most meaningful here.

If your confidence in their ability to research a situation is established, move up a level and ask them to research and to also make a recommendation. You’ll be able to assess their problem-solving situation.

Once you are confident in their skills at that level, begin to have them implement all (or part of) the recommendation with your guidance and oversight. They will check in with you before acting and proceed only with your blessing.

As your confidence in their ability and their skills improve, you can gradually hand off more and more, ultimately perhaps getting to the point where they handle the situation and either keep you informed or perhaps only letting you know if they ran into a problem.

This step-by-step approach allows you to both assess and coach each step of the way. If you find they are incapable of the task or if your confidence in their performance is weak, you simply don’t proceed to the higher, more autonomous levels.

There are some things that should never be delegated.

I would be remiss to not share that there are some things as a leader that you own and that should not be delegated. These include:

  • Casting your vision for your team: You can delegate the research and engage for ideas – but the final course of action is owned by you and you alone
  • Team composition and performance: You can delegate some of this work (background checks, participating in interviews, mentoring, or onboarding) but you own the overall selection, development, and performance management of your direct reports.
  • Relationships with key stakeholders: They may be internal or external (your boss, key peers, important clients, or suppliers), but there are some relationships too important to your role to hand off to another.

The art of effective delegation occurs in the hand off.

Good delegation requires you to be clear about outcomes, boundaries, and success factors. Fuzzy direction begets poor or mis-aligned results. Shift your energy from “doing the work” to setting others up to do the work well and to your expectations.

Delegation is a powerful way to increase the capacity and capability of your team and to develop others.

Contrary to what many leaders believe, the chance to learn something new, the opportunity to contribute at a higher level, or knowing that they are trusted with an important piece of work is a motivator for many. Think about delegation as a developmental tool. What might you delegate that helps build key skills in your staff? This is a powerful shift in how you think about delegation and your team will benefit from it.

Look at the six reasons you might be avoiding delegating and experiment with reframing them:

  1. The time it takes to show someone else how to do it will pay off over time.
  2. The more others can do, the easier the work is for everyone.
  3. Others will do it differently (and perhaps better), but within the success criteria I set.
  4. This is important so I will be clear about criteria, boundaries, and expectations.
  5. It is up to me to get results through our collective effort as a team.
  6. Others will be honored I see the potential in them and will be excited to learn something new.

If you do not believe me, you might think about what some of these highly effective leaders have to say about the ability to delegate:

“If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”   John C. Maxwell, American author

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”   Dwight Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President

“No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.”
– Andrew Carnegie, American industrialist

“Are we limiting our success by not mastering the art of delegation? …. it’s simply a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”
– Oprah Winfrey, media mogul

5 Responses

  1. Kris,
    This is a great, great blog post. This post makes us think as it goes directly to the heart of our leadership
    style and actions. (Ouch!)
    May I share this with IWSBON women in a future newsletter?

  2. I was challenged in all the right ways by your blog about delegation for the good (indeed greatness) of whatever we are doing. Thanks, Kris, for the ways you encourage leadership that flourishes.

  3. Delegation is difficult to for me too at times….until I break through and see others grow in skill and confidence.

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