18

I'm being criticised for 'reluctance' to delegate. In fact I am pretty happy to delegate (maybe too much so... - I'm quite lazy) given competent people. NB: I don't have perfectionist standards of competence, not a "control freak".

How to explain that I feel I can't delegate to people for whom in my experience, information goes in one ear and out the other with the result of constantly making mistakes or having to be "babysat" while doing the task (making it pointless involving the person as they won't learn so there is no future payback)?

I'm aware criticising directly isn't an option as that would reflect on the boss' judgement at recruitment stage.

Edited to add: mostly "sideways" delegation or if not then people that I coordinate but really we report to the same boss. I'm not their direct manager.

Edit2 (what have I already tried?): Spoken to fellow team members about let's do this together because [handover of duties, only one person knows how to do it and that isn't sustainable, etc]. Willing and seem to listen but ultimately don't seem to take it on board. I feel like I'm the only one committed to get the goal achieved and the others are just there for the salary...

  • 13
    When someone is new at something, they're going to make mistakes. That's just the way it is. For how long are you coaching them? If you're "lazy" maybe you need to put more work into getting you mentees up to speed? Are you sure you're not deflecting the criticism of you towards others by calling them "inept"? That's a very strong word. What have you tried to address this situation in your training of delegates? – teego1967 Nov 13 '15 at 17:04
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    If you are in a position to delegate to them, they are not your equals. It may be a team effort to get the work done, but if you are the one deciding what gets delegated and to whom, you are no longer equals. – cdkMoose Nov 13 '15 at 17:14
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    I don't have an answer per se but I will say that a few years back we hired someone who I was asked to delegate work to and for probably a good year or so I had to watch his work like a hawk, push him towards better ways of doing things, push him back in the right direction when he just straight up misunderstood specs and did the wrong things, fix his mistakes, etc. It felt like a huge waste of my time and I honestly didn't except it to ever change. BUT... he eventually got up to speed, and now I just give him work and he does it perfectly (usually.) Sometimes it takes time. – Andrew Whatever Nov 13 '15 at 17:23
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    Choice of word is important here, delegate generally implies giving some work to someone below you. If you are all giving work to each other, I wouldn't consider that delegation. If your manager used the word delegation, you should definitely confirm what he or she really means. – cdkMoose Nov 13 '15 at 17:23
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    Titles aren't the only thing that matters. Your manager may have visions of you as a team lead and is grooming you along that path. In many organizations you need to start performing the new role informally before the title/promotion will come. Delegation is an important aspect of the role of team leader. All the more critical to sit down with your manager and discuss exactly what they mean by delegating and what their future plans for you are. – cdkMoose Nov 13 '15 at 17:33

10 Answers 10

10

You should only explain to your boss that you are reluctant to delegate because of the ineptness of others if you have really done everything you can to delegate to them and you are unable to make it work. Your boss is likely to see your failure to delegate as a failure on your part, not as a failure on the part of some other person. If you must tell your boss, you should address it directly, and honestly, and be prepared to lay out all the steps that you have taken to make it work. Go into that meeting with your boss prepared to discuss your strength and weaknesses, and be prepared that it could be a career limiting move. At the very least you should be able to tell your boss that you have taken each of the steps below.

Being able to delegate is one of the most essential skills that one must have to move off the lowest rungs in any workplace. Effectively, your boss has given you the task of learning to delegate and you are refusing to learn. You won't learn much about delegation if everyone you delegate to is highly competent, so you have the ideal learning environment. It seems to be a lack of knowledge and confidence on your part that you aren't yet doing as you have been asked to do.

One of the first things you need to learn about delegation is how to get useful work out of people who are on the lower end of the competency scale. This is greatly shortened, but the process starts something like this:

  • Delegate lower priority small tasks to someone at first. Tell them what you want done and the way you want it done
  • Tell them to let you know when the small task is complete
  • Have them show you the results
  • Thank or praise them for their work

You don't give them a huge, important, time-critical task to start with. You're touching base with them often, so they can't go too far astray. You're still working on the things you have to work on, but you make it a priority to follow up on the delegation. If you fail here you won't get any further. Make delegating a priority.

Some people learn faster than others. Some people that you delegate to may stay at that stage for many different project, and some are ready for the next steps right away. Once a person has shown you that they can perform at the initial level, you're ready for the next steps.

  • Delegate a small project that has many steps
  • Tell the person the order of the steps, and that they are to check in with you after a certain step (let's say step 3)
  • When they check in with you, if they have done everything to your liking thank them and tell them the next step you want to check in with you on (let's say step 6). Give them guidance, but allow them to do some of the less important steps in any way the want to instead of specifying an exact method
  • If they did not do everything to your liking, give gentle suggestions about what you want done differently. Be willing to take the blame for some of their smaller mistakes by saying things like, "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you that I wanted this done this way." Do not make them feel that they failed. If you do, then you'll end up not being able to delegate to them and then you will have failed at the task your boss asked of you. If they fail at any given level, keep them at the same level of supervision, or if you really need to, ask them to check in after each step. Don't say that, just say, something like "Please touch base with me after Step 4."
  • As people get better, assign them more important tasks, let them go longer between steps before they check in with you, and give them more freedom to do the task the way they want to.
  • Remember that they will never do everything exactly the way that you would like it, and they don't need to. This doesn't mean that you have to accept inferior work, but it does mean that you need to keep your eye on the really important stuff and let the minor things go.

Finally keep this in mind. You might be just as big a disappointment to your boss as your coworkers are to you. This is a situation where you win if you can make them winners and you lose if you view them as losers.

43

I often need to tell people to delegate more. Here's the worst thing you can do:

Oh, ok, well, I will try to do more of that if I can. [thinks to self: not with this group of idiots to delegate to.]

In the baldest of terms, you have two choices: start doing as your boss asks, and let the chips fall where they may, or tell your boss why you don't delegate. A combination of the two is probably wise. Refusing to do something because you don't think you can is kind of a career limiting move.

Next time you have a delegable task, go to your boss and say something like this:

I know you've asked me to delegate more, and I have been looking for opportunities to do so. I have this task A, and I was thinking of giving it to B. I'm a little concerned that I may end up having to provide a lot of support to B though. Can you give me some direction about how much to support? At first glance, it seems crazy to give ten hours of support to someone as they complete a ten hour task, but if I succeed in teaching B how to A, perhaps that's ok with you?

Wait, and listen. It might be ok to spend 20 hours teaching B how to do something that currently takes you 10 hours, because you're the only person who can do it and the team needs people to learn it. Or it might not be ok to even spend 2 hours.

Once you have your answer, the next question is

How can I enforce that limit? Should I just take the task back if it's not complete by the time I've put that much support in? Or should I send B to someone else for further support?

Whatever direction you're given, follow it. The task will either work out ok or it will not. Afterwards, give the whole thing some serious reflection. Was A a good task to delegate? Was B a good person to delegate it to? Did this work out ok overall? What can you learn from it for next time? Is your boss wrong and you're right, nobody else on this team can do any of your tasks? (Hint: that would not be a good outcome for you.)

Delegating is a skill. You can't just magically start doing it and have it work every time. Sometimes it's great and sometimes it's abysmal. You have been asked to learn how to do it. It's ok for you to ask for a little support in your new skill. And it's ok for your coworkers to ask for a little support, too.

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    In the past I've held many roles - I own a small consulting company, and I also consult to teams and tell people that they need to do things differently to turn around troubled projects. Troubled projects are rich in people afraid to delegate, for a variety of reasons. – Kate Gregory Nov 13 '15 at 17:44
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    Delegation is not abdication. You don't just give someone a task and walk away, expecting them to complete it to your standards and in the time you would. You need to make sure they understand all of the expectations and you need to document it. I typically use a simple RAIL (Rolling Action Item List) in excel. It's very useful for accountability and to demonstrate to your boss at a glance what you've delegated and to who. If someone is not doing quality work in a timely manner, you can discuss it with them and if necessary, the management above you. If needed, they'll bring the hammer down. – DLS3141 Nov 13 '15 at 18:54
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    @Kate is completely right. My job also involves fixing troubled projects and a person who believes "only I can do these tasks well enough" and will not share information or skills is very often one of the roots of the problem. Serious problems very often occur when the non-delegator can't keep up with the work but won't allow anyone else the info and tools they need to do it; having senior management become aware that an employee is keeping information to themselves for what can look like "job security" reasons often ends very badly for that employee. – A E Nov 13 '15 at 22:40
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    @AE, yes, that is one reason troubled projects are rich people afraid to delegate. But they also have genuine idiots on them, and scarred people who got burned when they tried to help, and shifting values, priorities, and rules, communication issues, and a host of other things that prevent free and open sharing of work, information, priorities, hopes and dreams, that sort of thing. – Kate Gregory Nov 14 '15 at 13:50
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    @Kate That's all true, but when I hear someone say that everyone else at work is inferior to them, I tend to think the problem lies at least partly with that person and their attitude. Although that attitude might have been formed by circumstances beyond their control, the situation rarely ends well for the person with the "everyone else is an idiot" attitude (IME). – A E Nov 14 '15 at 17:12
13

First, your reluctance to properly delegate is part of the cause of the issue. If people know that you will get impatient and just do it, why should they put out an effort to do it correctly? There is no down side to them, they are not going to be held responsible, you are because you didn't properly delegate it.

This is what you need to do. You give the person a task, you sit with him long enough to explain what needs to happen but not to do the task completely (unless is a repetitive task, in which case you do it in front of them once, then they do it in front of you once, then you leave them to it) and then you tell your boss that Person A is now responsible for task B and then you leave it to them to do and fail or succeed. Some of them are going to fail at first, but when you don't charge in on your white horse to save the day, they will have to get better or the boss will let them go. You are enabling them to be incompetent.

  • I agree that being reluctance to delegate is a major issue here. But just doing the minimum possible instruction and letting the delagee sink or swim would be really unprofessional, selfish and lazy. Providing support to somebody that is new to something isn't "riding in on a white horse" it is just being a diligent and responsible coworker. – teego1967 Nov 13 '15 at 20:01
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    Doing the work for them while sitting with them is riding in on a white horse (when it is a one-time task) or taking it back at the first sign of trouble is riding in on a white horse. You don't have to walk professionals through every task you give them, you give them the information they need and trust them to ask questions if they have to. You don't hold their hands unless they are very junior trainees and then only the first time. It should not take more than an hour or two to pass a task on. You have to assume they are competent. And if they are not then you need to let them prove it. – HLGEM Nov 13 '15 at 20:39
  • Categorically disagree. Nobody is holding hands. Maybe where you work any task would take "and hour or two" to hand-off. Some tasks are more complex than others, and some people are better at explaining things and assessing the delagee than others. "Explain it once then sink or swim" is a recipe for a cut-throat miserable workplace. – teego1967 Nov 13 '15 at 20:49
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    Did you read the question? These are described as takers who won't even try to learn, but sit there passively while he does everything. You have to let them sink or swim. You have to CR their work and critique it and then make them do all of the fixes after they produce something too It might take them 20 hours to do a ten hour task and it might get rejected in CR 2-3 times, but no way should he spend anywhere close to as much time as it would take him to do it himself sitting there holding their hands. That is the behavior his boss is trying to get him to stop. – HLGEM Nov 13 '15 at 20:57
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    " It should not take more than an hour or two to pass a task on" -- or rather, if it takes more than an hour or two then you should relabel it "training to do X" rather than merely "delegating X". – Steve Jessop Nov 14 '15 at 14:02
5

I'm aware criticising directly isn't an option as that would reflect on the boss' judgement at recruitment stage.

Why isn't it an option?

I mean, people make mistakes. Your boss is a person (I hope), so hiring mistakes will happen. If you feel as though these people can't be trusted to do their jobs, you should be trying to have them fired.

Now your boss may suggest options on how to trust these people to do their jobs, or how to work with them to produce better work. Your boss probably should do that, and you should probably help by asking how. You should give that an honest effort, since not everyone you work with will be super awesome at their jobs.

And if these people are as incompetent as you think, that should become abundantly clear. If not, then enjoy your pleasant surprise.

  • On many teams, direct criticism is a big no-no. – Amy Blankenship Nov 13 '15 at 19:37
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    @AmyBlankenship - yes, well, many teams suck. I've never understood that stance. Effective communication is so vital to teamwork, why undermine it by having to indirectly reference anything bad that is happening? – Telastyn Nov 13 '15 at 19:40
  • Wish I knew :). The good news is working on such a team gives you a lot of practice in thinking of four or five different ways to word the same thing. – Amy Blankenship Nov 13 '15 at 19:44
  • +1 I like this, not criticising is harmful in many ways, I guess it depends on the location and office culture, but I believe in calling a spade a spade if I KNOW it's a spade. – Kilisi Nov 13 '15 at 20:47
  • I've just had some stuff from HR saying that feedback should not be critical. I share Telastyn's opinions, so I questioned this, and on closer inspection it turned out to be quirk of use of the word, they really meant that feedback should not contain personal attacks, or general criticism of the person as a person rather than specific criticisms of their work. So due to the difference in word-use, they were simultaneously happy for it to be critical[2], and it was a big no-no for it to be critical[1]. Since I consider critical[1] to be useless as feedback anyway, everyone is happy. – Steve Jessop Nov 14 '15 at 14:15
4

I think it is important that you understand how your boss views your role and your future. In the question and comments you consider your team members to be your equals. However, delegate usually implies giving work to someone below you. If you are in a position to delegate to them, they are not your equals. It may be a team effort to get the work done, but if you are the one deciding what gets delegated and to whom, you are no longer equals. You need to clarify this before you can really know how to proceed.

I'm aware criticising directly isn't an option as that would reflect on the boss' judgement at recruitment stage.

Unless you have experience with your manager over-reacting on this, I wouldn't assume this to be the case. Recruiting is not an exact science. There always candidates who get through who probably shouldn't have, time usually exposes those people, and experienced managers and recruiters understand that. Also, people change over time. For many reasons, internally and externally, people's motivations and performance change, that is not a reflection on the person who hired them.

Your manager may have visions of you as a team lead and is grooming you along that path. In many organizations you need to start performing the new role informally before the title/promotion will come. Delegation is an important aspect of the role of team leader. All the more critical to sit down with your manager and discuss exactly what they mean by delegating and what their future plans for you are. I have seen this in my own career, where my manager informed the team that I would be running the projects as part of her plan to have me promoted to Team Lead. When she formally proposed my promotion, it was a slam dunk because I had already been doing the bulk of the job.

As to the actual delegation, that is an important part of the training and evaluation process. If you don't delegate to team members, they don't get a chance to prove themselves. If you don't delegate, you also limit your or your manager's ability to evaluate these people. They need a chance to sink or swim on their own. It's a tough world out there, and employees need to deliver or move on. Delegation is a way of giving them a chance to sink or swim. Delegation is not an abdication of authority, but you need to give them enough control to prove themselves.

3

There are two types of people who are less able in a company. Those who are less experienced and those who are unable. In the case of the former spend your time sitting with them and tutoring them. It may take longer but in the end you will save time and significant effort.

At one point I brought a Jr. level dev up to speed on a project. Because I spent the extra hours going over PRs and the reason his architecture could improve, I was later able to spend less time in the maintenance cycles and focus on more interesting (and more urgent) work. It cost me precious hours in an incredibly busy business cycle, but it means that later I was far more able to participate in new initiatives.

In another case one of the devs. at my company caused catastrophic level failures. I generally only pointed these out internally and at the end of the day I got left holding much of the stink. Some things I learned:

  • Make sure you have automated testing in place. Show the dev's failures.
  • Make sure you have an alternate outline in place in case of failure.
  • Work with QA to validate the code (you would have to validate anyway even if you wrote it).
  • When the deadline slips be sure to have this documented.

Yes, it might mean that you are cost deadlines, but it will also mean that your error was in trusting this other person. Either that means that the person isn't trained properly or wasn't competent at the projects he was given. Either way you will have something to demonstrate instead of pure reticence.


It should be also noted that delegation has three possible outcomes:

  • It saves you time.
  • You lose time in training someone and the company gets better because now there is one more trained individual.
  • You lose time because of someone that can't hack it, you now get that person in a position where they are no longer able to interfere.

In all cases, you save time in the end.

2

Delegate wisely, not casually.

Delegation is a way to get more work done. It's a good thing. The trick is how to do it. If I may paraphrase your attitude, you don't want to delegate because you are worried they wont do a good enough job. I paraphrase it that way because it points out that the focus is on the product delivered at the end of the day.

Who is asking for that product? If its your boss, then the issue is that you aren't comfortable with the risk of accepting responsibility, delegating it, and then being responsible when the work isn't done to an acceptable quality.

What I'd try to do is break the task up such that you can give them pieces. If they do it, great, you're ahead of the game. If they don't, then you were planning on covering for them anyway, so it didn't hurt you. Don't delegate anything you don't think you couldn't manage to fix afterwards.

Over time, you may find that the other people have skills that you would like to leverage. Its hard to tell until you engage them!

2

Wow, as the "best" person on your team, you're a terrible mentor. How do you expect your colleagues to improve if you never teach them?

Instead of "I must do this task because I am the best", you should try "I will help you with this task the first time you take it on; and then, you will know how to do it in the future".

This is absolutely crucial to the success of any team. Knowledge should be shared, not hoarded.

1

It sounds like a strange environment.

There is just a goal and the team is expected to self organize? If that is really the case then just take on the tasks you can perform quickly and avoid delegation in the first place.

If you are given lead on a project or goal and expected to pull in other resources then that is what you need to do. That is their perception of performance and they have been very clear with you. It is OK to say my experience with Joe on this type of task is it takes more effort to baby sit him than perform the task myself. If they say we still want you to delegate then delegate. Document the task in writing and make note of start and completion date. If the tasks slips and impacts the project then report it. If the task can be broken out as a separate deliverable then just hand it over to them to self manage and make a note to management this task has been delegated to X.

-1

I am probably going to get down-voted to oblivion for this, but the simple fact of the matter is that most of the people one works with on a day-to-day basis are either idiots, barely competent to hold the position they do or so lazy and ineffectual that whatever contribution they provide is marginal at best or a hindrance. I don't like delegating because, 90% of the time the task won't get done properly, if at all, or can't be completed without endless guidance and advice, a great deal of which can be found be simple Google searches.

This is only one of the reasons why I will never move into a managerial role; I would much rather produce useful and interesting artifacts myself than cajole, wheedle and encourage others to produce such artifacts when, more often than not, I will be disappointed in what they produced (if they are able to produce anything of value at all)

So, I say, it's just fine not to delegate. After a certain point in my career I have made an active choice to avoid delegating anything that I have to take a dependency on. I don't care about placing blame, or even getting credit other than just compensation. What I do care about is the integrity of my intellectual product and if delegating a task puts that product at risk, I will usually find a way to avoid delegating it; I will delegate something that is as tangential as possible so my progress won't be impeded or compromised.

And yeah, I am almost always the best member on the team - and a terrible mentor. You either get it and get with it or get out of the way. I don't care how much you learn or if your learn, only that you stay out of my way if you can't provide tangible value : )

  • Goodness me.​​​ – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 15 '15 at 12:52
  • @Truth, what you think is "the truth", is actually narcissism deluding your own judgement. Enjoy it while you can because it is only a matter of time before you get isolated and surpassed by the same people you've treated as "idiots". – teego1967 Nov 15 '15 at 16:09
  • @teego1967, there are plenty of people better than me, but it's rare that I get the chance to work with them. If am isolated by the integrity and quality of my work then I'll take that. I'm neither a genius nor a narcissist, just a journeyman that puts forth the effort to deliver a quality work product. There is always something new to learn; unfortunately, few coworkers have ever been able to provide such sustenance. – Truth Nov 15 '15 at 18:21
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    By definition you are probably never the best member of the team. You might be able to do the tasks specific to your whatever skill you have well, but working with a team means spending some of the ensuring the success of the team and not just of your particular tasks. What matters most to management is the output of the entire team. Someone who can help the underutilized members of the team be more productive can add more to the total output of the team than a superstar who doesn't try to help the team be more productive. – Itsme2003 Feb 7 '17 at 16:09

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