Why you don’t delegate

WHAT could be easier than delegating? It really is management 101. There are thousands of articles and trainings and books available to teach you.  Yet in my coaching work, it is one of the most common issues that leaders struggle with. The generic delegation steps are not particularly challenging:

  1. Clarify the expected outcome,
  2. draw the “box” to define boundaries (cost, quality, quantity, timeliness),
  3. identify to whom to delegate, taking into account whether it is a developmental stretch or simply a “get it done” assignment,
  4. provide the authority to get it done within the “box.”

Plus, the prospect of getting more done while potentially developing others should entice leaders to delegate more, not less.

Simple, right?  Sort of.  We’re dealing with an organizational social system and you acting in it.

What are some common “blocks” to delegating? 

1. You are afraid of what others will think of you.

This is common for new leaders who have been promoted from an individual contributor to a supervisor of (former) peers. More than a few supervisors have shared with me that they are afraid that their former peers/friends will “think that I think I’m better than them.”

2. You define yourself in terms of the content of the work you did and now lead (because you love it); or you’re afraid you’ll become “irrelevant” if you don’t keep up your technical knowledge and skills to the same level as your team.

This is very common for leaders at all levels (I’ve worked with plenty of supervisors through CEOs with this challenge), and very common for leaders with a technical background, such as accounting, finance, IT, engineering, etc. Plenty of leaders struggle with letting go of the “content” of the work, and believe that leadership is intertwined with the speciality that they supervise (it often isn’t). Soon I’ll post on “factors that contribute to micro-managing”–#2 is a predictor of micro-managing in my experience.

2a. “I would delegate more but I have a hard time trusting others.”

A false flag version of 2. And, if you think your team is incompetent or not trustworthy, it’s actually your problem, not theirs. And your boss and everyone else knows it.

Trust me.

3. You define your success in terms of your hands-on productivity, not the productivity of your team.

This is common for supervisors through middle management, though I see it at times above that. Truth is, the higher up you are in the organization, the fewer decisions and actions you should be taking on a daily basis. There are several assumptions behind this that I’ll discuss in a later post, but the shorter the time horizon of your job, the more decisions and actions you should take on a daily basis–and vice-versa. In the best run companies, the CEO and C-suite leaders make few decisions and take few actions because they delegate and empower others, enabling themselves to focus on long-term/strategic and truly critical issues.

4. You work in a culture that rewards leaders for saving the day (and its probably the same leaders’ fault that there’s a fire burning in the first place because they didn’t delegate and hold others accountable)–oh, and you love the action. 

1.-3. above are more common, but this one occurs in cultures where delegation as a whole is not used. I coached a COO who suffered from all three of the factors above. She started in the company right out of high school and worked her way up to the C-suite, so knew everyone in the company personally (#1). She loved getting her hands dirty and problem-solving stuff in the plants (#2). She didn’t value (nor did she have much skill at) strategic-level work and the reflective vs. active orientation required (#3). She also liked the saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” (#2a). She spent most of her time on emergency phone calls, jumping on planes, etc. to solve safety, quality, and production issues around the globe. Not only did the people on location love the attention of her swooping in to save the day, but the CEO would publicly recognize her success in doing so.

She was rewarded for putting out the fires that she actively started or fanned through neglect.

It’s not an issue of skill or motivation

There are a few other twists on the issue of not delegating. What I find most interesting about “I don’t delegate enough” is that the seemingly simple issue is never a problem of “not knowing how.” Most issues and challenges leaders deal with are not an issue of skill.

In reality, the theme of the first three is the leader’s very self-definition, ways of understanding themselves, and the nature of work. Pretty deep. And in the fourth, it is a perfect (if dysfunctional) “fit” between the leader’s values and motivations and the organization’s culture.

  • Do you see yourself in any of the descriptions above?
  • How could you challenge yourself to move past these blocks?
  • If you’re a top leader in the organization, what can you do to change the culture via changing your behavior to recognize and reward predictability and prevention rather than fire-fighting?



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