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I recently had a situation where a coworker wanted to help me with a project. They asked me to delegate tasks to them, which I did. However, every time I delegate something to them, they'll come back to me with a large number of what I perceive to be very minor/detailed questions that I either don't care about or that I think that they could've easily solved themselves. It often gets to the point that it almost would've been easier to just do it myself.

I am not this individual's supervisor. We don't normally work together on projects or on the same team. However, in the situation, the project is highly relevant to both of us, so it makes sense for them to offer to help, and it makes sense for me to delegate to them. I don't want to stop delegating tasks to them entirely (and I certainly don't want to alienate the individual in question), but I don't want to have to hand-hold them through the tasks either.

Also, I do believe that this individual genuinely wants to help, and that they want to feel like they're participating in the project. In fact, there's a good chance that they would be offended if they weren't allowed to participate in some way, which I really don't want.

What I would really like to happen is if I gave them general parameters and they did the task without me needing to intervene (or, at least, if they only asked me "high-level" questions).

What's the best way to handle this?

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    Have you talked to your manager about this?
    – David R
    May 28, 2023 at 14:22
  • @DavidR Not yet - I was hoping we could resolve it between ourselves first. May 28, 2023 at 16:13
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    How about setting up a recurring daily meeting of say one hour, where they ask their questions, and the last 15 mins are spent recording meeting minutes?
    – androidguy
    May 28, 2023 at 16:33
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    When a coworker is taking enough of your time that you want to post it here, that is an issue that your manager needs to know about. The manager might choose to add time to your schedule to train the other person or take some other action with that other person. Simply put, anything that affects your work that is out of ordinary is something that your manager needs to know about.
    – David R
    May 29, 2023 at 14:00
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    Answering questions is not micromanaging. Telling him at all times what to do is. May 30, 2023 at 5:48

4 Answers 4

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Note: This answer will deal with the micromanagement aspect.

When someone comes back with seemingly trivial questions, you can try responding with a question:

e.g.) Do I pick A or B?

  • What happens if you pick A?
  • What happens if you pick B?
  • Does the outcome matter that much?
  • Can either A or B really be wrong?
  • What's the cost of doing both A and B?
  • What if you did neither?

They need to be able to internalize this questioning process and not simply throw their arms up when a question arises. Sometimes some decisions really don't matter. Sometimes, when there is a decision, you can actually pick both, until you learn that one of them is significantly better. Sometimes, you assume you'll be doing both, until you learn that neither are suitable.

Project management is all about managing the unknowns and how to proceed when missing information.

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You don't mention what kind of work is involved.

If you find from experience that it's not worth delegating, perhaps because they lack the experience or common sense to make independent progress, then of course just say you have nothing to hand over in future.

On the other hand, your colleague may see the main benefit of this "delegation" as providing a context to pick your brains, especially if there's a discrepancy in experience or competence (or age).

It might not be possible both to avoid "holding hands" and also avoid offence, if that hand-holding and knowledge transfer is the whole point of their interest.

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    Mmm. This answer points out that there are (ideally) two separate benefits from your colleague's help: first: the obvious one of doing some of your work for you, but second: the transfer of knowledge to your colleague. Don't underestimate that second one: it's an investment for the future, which can outweigh the limited time (if any) it's saving you now.
    – gidds
    May 31, 2023 at 10:29
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    A third: Knowing how to teach is a valuable skill. Eventually you may want to move into a technical leadership role where most of the implementation work is done by delegating...
    – keshlam
    Jun 1, 2023 at 4:02
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"Sorry, but right now it's easier for me to keep all the threads in my own hands. I'll let you know when there's a part I can break off for you to work on." Repeat as needed.

Unless your manager directs you to, or directs them to assist you, you are not obligated to delegate to anyone in particular. That may cause disappointment; it shouldn't cause hurt feelings.

If management does want them to be involved, you may have to look for pieces that can be worked on asynchronously and which can be delivered late without being a problem.

If management wants you actively to teach them, that's part of your job and you need to budget that time into all estimates -- and keep management informed periodically (not continuously) of their progress or lack thereof. If you don't want that task, take it up with your manager. If you're concerned that it will delay the project, take it up with your manager. If they say do it anyway, do it anyway.

Remember that part of the goal is to get them trained up to the point where they can act, and feel comfortable acting, with post-review rather than advance direction. You might try the Socratic approach, turning the questions around: what have you tried, what do you think the answer should be and why, what does the spec say... The more you can get them used to answering their own questions (and getting the answers right, of course), the less hand-holding they will need.

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Give him tasks that are ok to take time. While you solve the meat of the solution yourself. Every time he asks for help, give him pointers/ take time, and handhold him.

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  • Is there some way to avoid hand-holding them in the first place? I'd really rather not micromanage them at all. May 29, 2023 at 12:51
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    You should have started with super simple tasks and slowly increased the complexity. As you do this, his weakness and strengths would be evident early +avoiding handholding. Also, consider asking him to walk through a given module before assigning a task --will further help you.
    – chendu
    May 30, 2023 at 7:55

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