The Costs of Not Delegating (…completely)


The management credo has always been “delegate, delegate, delegate” yet many managers, both tenured and new, seem to have a great deal of difficulty doing this.  Most of the time, it has nothing to do with not knowing how; throughout our life we have delegated tasks to our siblings, friends, and team mates.  We know how, we just don’t we become a manager.  The simple reason is FEAR.  The increased fear that comes with being responsible but not in control.  So what do we do? We keep control rather than let it go.  Seems like a normal reaction, but it may be working against us in more ways than we realize.

The personal toll

This is usually the first and most obvious place the pain of retaining control shows up.  We have too much on our plates and the first thing someone always suggests is to delegate some of it.  All the personal balancing and time tools in the world will not allow you to do more than you are capable within a given amount of time.  Yet, rather than delegate, we hold tighter to those items and insist (mostly to convince ourselves) that we can do it.  This again, goes back to fear.  The fear perpetuated by feeling overwhelmed in the moment.  “If I were to let go of anything, surely the wheels would come off and things would fail, and people would see I am in over my head, and I would get fired, and the job market is too bad to be looking for a job, and unemployment won’t pay enough to feed my family, and I’ll lose my car, and then I won’t be able get a better job, and I’ll be worthless.”  Sound like a logic train you take?  No?  Well, maybe that one is just me but chances are you have thought it would end in your own personal disaster.

The other part of this fear spiral is the excuse we tell ourselves that “it would take longer to explain than it would to just do it.”  So how is that working for you at 1am when you are still doing the things you could have explained?  The problem there is we don’t have a clear articulation of the outcome either and we are really making our best guesses as we go along…and we don’t trust someone else to make the same guesses, especially when we cannot describe the outcome we want.  Touching on yet another fear…that we may not know what we are trying to do.  So for goodness sake, “don’t ask me about the outcome – the last thing I want is for you to remind me that I have no clue.”

There is also the excuse we firmly believe and that is no one can do it as well as I can.  And here you may be right…but then again, if that is the case and you avoid delegation because of it, then it you will always be right which only continues the cycle.  The other side of this one is you may be wrong.  There may be someone better at this than you.  This can be scary, too.  “If someone is better at this than me, why would they keep me?  I can’t give someone the chance to show me up.”  It’s a vicious cycle.  And that is just the personal toll it takes on you.

Your employees are unhappy

Despite the lingering industrial revolution belief (which was in the late 1800s and early 1900s – yeah, over 100 years ago,) people would not rather sit and do nothing all day.  We are curious and naturally seek challenges.  Imagine this scenario…you are placed in a room with a chair and a table, on the table is a partially completed jigsaw puzzle and the remaining piece.  Given no specific directions other than “make yourself comfortable” chances are you would start working on the puzzle within a few minutes. And this is not my half-baked theory, this experiment has been repeated over and over with the same result.  Check out Dan Pink’s Drive if you don’t believe me.  Given no incentive, people still seek out challenge.

By not delegating your are actually decreasing engagement.  Actually giving your employees something to do makes them feel valued.  And you can’t just delegate the easy stuff.  Again, people want challenge and the opportunity to get better at what they do, they don’t want something simple all the time.  Besides boring them to death, by doing so you are also limiting your employees’ capability to do more things…and thus limiting what you feel you can delegate.  Stretch assignments are things that may need a little additional support at first but result in higher engagement, increased self-esteem, and more productive employees.  And there is also a more subtle emotional component to delegating.  Delegating stretch assignments raises the degree of trust between you and your employee, which can have all sorts of positive effects.  For instance, when employees feel more trusted they are more likely to make decisions when you are not around or unavailable so projects do not stall out during your absence.  They also end to act on things they see instead of waiting to be told.

The organization suffers

This is the trickle down cost to not delegating and it stems from everything above.  Things take longer, less gets done, and people are not looking for solutions…they are simply waiting to be told what to do.  If employees are not challenged and trusted to make their own decisions, they tend to opt on the safe side of not making a potentially “wrong” one…so they wait.  And usually the safe bet is also to do what has always been accepted so very little innovation comes from a non-delegating culture.  Employee retention can also suffer resulting in high turnover rates.  Career development ranks as one of the top drivers of employee engagement.

Efficiency and improvements stall

This one is a little more obscure in its relationship to delegation and perhaps has more to do with trust and control than delegation directly…but they are all inter-related.  When employees are delegated a responsibility, and I mean truly delegated (ownership, authority, autonomy, resources) they tend to come up with better ways to do things.  If I have control over my project and then get to end my day when it is done, I work faster.  Eventually, I start thinking of better, more efficient ways to do things as it allows me more freedom.  And if you want to brush up more on the power of autonomy (one of the motivation principles in Drive) you might want to take a look at Why Work Sucks: and how to fix it by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson.

Long term, everyone wins…short-term everyone wins.  The pain is dealing with the fear of not having control.  And that my friend is all up to you.  The hardest thing to realize is that you are the one standing in the way of your team’s performance.  The next hardest thing is doing something new to change it.

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One thought on “The Costs of Not Delegating (…completely)

  1. Pingback: 10 Things Good Bosses Do « Peak Alignment

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