How to Delegate So the Gain Outweighs the Pain


Delegate So Gain Outweighs PainIf you rarely delegate, you are an individual contributor. It doesn’t matter what your title is. Leaders who don’t delegate are not leading.

Not delegating hurts.

It hurts YOU. It’s not possible to do it all alone. You will get overloaded, stressed, and will eventually drown in the details.

It hurts your team. If you are doing their work, you are denying them the opportunity to grow and develop new skills and experiences.

It hurts your organization. If you are spending your time mucky around in the details, who’s looking at the horizon and ensuring you’re heading in the right direction?

But wait! Delegating hurts, too.

Stacey got feedback that her team saw her as a micro-manager, and she was working hard to step back and give them space. She confided to me, “It’s incredibly painful watching them make bad decisions and not stepping in to rescue them.”

It’s true. It can be painful to delegate. Things might not be done the way you believe is right, or worse yet, they may fail, the project may fail. There might be serious consequences.

How did Stacey have the courage to step back and not intervene in a decision she knew was likely to fail? – especially when she cared deeply about the outcome and also about her people?

She needed to learn that it’s ok to fail.

The gain outweighs the pain.

Learning:  Stacey shifted her orientation from perfection to learning. She began to debrief failures with her team in a non-judgmental way. Rather than pointing out what they did wrong, she created space for them to examine mistakes and learn from them. Real learning began to occur and a positive feedback loop where potential mistakes were caught early and corrected.

Shared responsibility for results:  An important shift has occurred on Stacey’s team. Where in the past her team had passively implemented her directions without concern for the outcome, they now became actively engaged and assumed responsibility for success and failure.

The top 10 reasons people don’t delegate.

Do any of these reasons resonate for you? If so, what would happen if you challenged your assumptions?

1. They might not do it right or might fail.

Is that really so bad? Ask yourself:  What is the worst thing that can happen if the project fails? Will lives be lost? Sometimes our worst-case fears are driven more by emotion than logic.

2. They don’t want additional responsibilities.

Maybe they don’t want to be dumped with more work without authority.

3. It’s easier and faster to do the task yourself.

What would happen in the long run if you took the time up front to show them and gave them the space to learn?

4. Your own accomplishments might be eclipsed by their success.

Which accomplishments? Your success as a manager is measured by the success of your team.

5. You might be seen as dispensable.

You’re not likely to be promoted if you’re indispensable.

6. They might make mistakes that will affect your reputation.

If you are a micro-manager, chances are your reputation isn’t what you think it is.

7. Your old job was more interesting and fun.

The job of a manager is different than that of an individual contributor. You might discover it’s fun and rewarding to support others in accomplishing the work. But management is not the right job for everyone. If it’s not right for you, it’s better to recognize it now.

8. You won’t be seen as the one doing the most work, working the hardest.

Not to worry. You’ll be doing different work, but you’ll be working very hard.

9. It’s not clear what you’re supposed to do in this role and it’s more comfortable to do what you already know how to do well.

Every time you get promoted you have a new job to learn. Stop doing the work you did before and look around. What needs to be accomplished at a big picture level? Where is the organization going? What role does your team need to play? How can you support the people who are doing the work, provide the resources they need and work with your peers to provide coordinated leadership for the organization?

10. That’s how everyone acts. Your own boss is micro-managing you.

Sorry to hear that. But it’s not an excuse. 

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22 comments to How to Delegate So the Gain Outweighs the Pain

  • Marye Gail Harrison

    Great post and written so realistically. Rarely do I get a chuckle reading a leadership post but your last line made me LOL.
    Thanks and happy Thanksgiving to all.

  • Delegating only hurts in the short term – you know what that is call…”TRAINING”. When delegating, many people have the expectation that the person they are delegating to is going to screw it up, but that learning is simply the cost of doing business. If you want to be successful, you need to learn to leverage other people’s skill sets.

    We delegate all the time in our personal life……we hire a gardener, we go to a grocery store rather than farming our own food, we use a dry cleaner to clean our professional clothing rather than doing it at home….

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      That’s interesting to contrast delegating in our personal lives vs. our work lives. I wonder if it has to do with our own sense of autonomy. Thanks for raising this point, Josh.

  • Thanks for this important message. Delegation skills are a huge and under-utilized opportunity for both individuals and organizations. We are beginning to understand that collaboration and partnering are skills that need to be leaned, i.e., not to be casually addressed. We’ve known for a long time that effective delegation is critical to getting work done and freeing up those doing the delegation to focus on developing their people, not project implementation.

    Your 10 points are great reminder to managers and leaders that letting go of their fears by practicing delegation will help grow both them and the people who do the work.

    How do we institutionalize delegation as a skill? Make it a mandatory performance goal?

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks for making the link between delegating and collaboration, Alan. As we learn to let go of needing to be in control (actually the illusion of control), we open the door for the possibility of collaboration. I agree that these are skills that can be learned, and the more we practice them, the more they become integrated into our beliefs. We can’t mandate delegating in the traditional sense because it is control approach, but we can adopt processes and practices that support delegating, learning and collaborating, and we can identify this as a value, philosophy or aspiration.

  • Great post Jesse! I love and agree entirely with your thinking! I also think the predominant blocker of real delegation, in my personal experience, is #10! I still find, all too often, managers micro-managing because that is the model they were exposed too! They see it as the ‘way to do things around here’ … and it becomes learned behaviour instead of challenged behaviour!

    Thank you for sharing … and a very Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Agree with you, John. It becomes an unconscious learned behavior, even when your natural temperament is to delegate. You must consciously decide to act differently in a micromanagement culture. In my recent post Stop Waiting for Someone Else to Provide Leadership, I suggest that the place to start is within your sphere of influence. If you are a team leader, start with your own team. I am looking forward to Thanksgiving here in the US. Warm wishes to you on the other side of the “pond.”

  • Stephen Melancon

    Great post, Jesse! I think the concept of “Not Delegating” also hurts your relationship with the team by sending a message of lack of trust. Lack of trust in their skills, competence, or ability to deliver results.

    I still struggle at times with allowing individuals or teams to fail. I know that it is a necessary part of growth and development. The challenge comes in with large projects that can significantly impact credibility or have a hefty price tag associated with failure. In those situations, it’s better to fail early and often with the incremental tasks that make up the overall project. That can allow you to use the methods you describe above without putting the entire project at risk. Let me know your thoughts on this.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      A very helpful approach, Stephen – “It’s better to fail early and often with the incremental tasks that make up the overall project.” The challenge is reflecting on the incremental tasks, putting them into perspective and seeing that a failure will not jeopardize the overall objective. Much thanks for adding to the conversation!

  • Great points. May I also suggest that NOT delegating allows one to complain about how overworked one is.. almost a perverse pleasure in the size of one’s to-do-list. Second, seems like this is a great teaching moment for a manager to learn how to make good decisions and to teach others. Chip and Dan Health just released a great book called DECISION:How to make better choices in Life and Work. Good resource for all.

    Thanks, Jesse. As always spot on

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Yep, we get to complain and possibly be admired and appreciated. But the price is at the expense of our health, our relationships and our enjoyment of life. Thanks for the suggested resource and for enriching the conversation, Eileen.

  • Your list was a “top 10” of limiting beliefs and cognitive distortions. We all have them, but your post brought out how they can impact your ability to do one of the most fundamental aspects of leadership and that’s delegation.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks for raising the point about limiting beliefs, Joe The problem with limiting beliefs is we accept them as reality until they are challenged because the meaning we assign to every event reinforces them and every action we take supports them. One of the most helpful questions we can ask ourselves is, “Is this really true? What other possible explanation might there be?”

  • Great top 10 list!

    Not delegating is a limiting factor for many. We all need to practice proper delegation, no matter what level in the organization.

    Some people like to ‘play martyr’ and not delegate so that they can complain about the workload. It does nothing, creates nothing, produces nothing. Others don’t delegate out of fear. If they are so busy, then obviously they are critical to the company. That makes the person think that they cannot be fired.

    Delegating is an important leadership skill, and knowing why to do it is the first step to learning.

  • Great post Jesse, your point #1 connected with me on a different level – thinking about parenting. How often do we see parents try to insulate their children from the pain of failing at something – with the best of intentions they create an artificial environment that does not allow their children to experience normal, healthy growth. Success/failure are two sides of the same relative coin and when used together provide some of the best opportunities for personal development.

    Very appreciative of you and your work,
    Best regards,

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      It’s a striking parallel, Carl. We interfere with a natural maturational process when we don’t give our children the opportunity to experience failure and then pick themselves up. Ironically, in our effort to protect them, we actually undermine their resiliency in the long run. I wish I had understood this better when my children were little.
      “Success/failure are two sides of the same relative coin and when used together provide some of the best opportunities for personal development.” <-- well said!

  • Deborah

    I am glad you included a section on the risk involved with delegating. It’s a risky venture to delegate tasks! Mistakes will inevitably be made by your team members. I appreciate what you said in your example about Stacey, how “she shifted her orientation from perfection to learning.” This is crucial, I believe- how will people grow in their skill set if you’re not giving them the opportunity to try something new (even if it does mean they might fail, at first)? Great post!

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Is is risky, but the greater risk is in not delegating. Thanks for highlighting the value of shifting your orientation to learning, Deborah. It’s the key that allows us to take that risk.

  • KB

    Jesse well said!! Well delegating is an art so to say and something must-2 for a healthy growth in term of self, service delivery and business but it is to done very judiciously. It may hurt and may have pain but at last will have gains for sure.

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