Why Is Delegating Work So Difficult?

During any large project, there comes a time when you're forced to delegate portions of the main task to other people. Sometimes, however, it's a real struggle to give up the reins.

In a 2013 Stanford University-led survey regarding executive coaching, 35% of chief executives said delegation is something they need to improve, while 37% said they’re actively trying to improve these skills. So why do more than a third of all executives say they need to improve their delegation skills?

I asked several managers, supervisors, and business owners on a Slack chat why delegation is inherently difficult and got three great answers that sum up the various barriers to effective delegation.

1. Delegating Doesn't Offload the Accountability

One manager shared: "There is always a little hesitation when delegating. Because while I will share in the success, I will have to take the blame for failure due to command responsibility — up to a certain point of course."

Possibly the biggest and most common difficulty with delegation revolves around accountability. When you delegate a task, you give up the responsibility for its execution. But if you're a manager, you are still ultimately accountable for the success or failure of that task. And you are measured and rewarded — or possibly chastised — for your team's output. Suddenly, delegating the creation of the CEO's presentation deck sounds like a pretty risky decision, especially with point #2.

2. Delegating Means Loss of Control

One response from the Slack business chat was: "Well, I can do this much better by myself!"

Makes sense. It's difficult to trust others to do the job as as well as you know you can. This loss of control — which in your head may equate to substandard output — is what prevents many managers from passing work off to their colleagues.

3. Delegating Takes Time and Mentoring

One business owner said: "I think of delegating as a management challenge. If I can instruct someone to do a task the way I want, then I've done my job as a supervisor. That entails holding their hand at the beginning then gradually leaving them on their own. When I have rendered myself obsolete, then I've done my job."

There is a delicate balancing act that occurs when delegation comes into play. And this is especially true when delegating work to new hires, or when managing remote employees. You often have to spend as much time mentoring the other person as you do to actually complete the task. But there's no shortcut. In order for the other person to do as good a job, you have to properly hand off not just the goals of the work, but also the nitty gritty of your personal process. This is where an ancient proverb comes into play: give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.

How Can You Delegate Successfully?

To tackle the fear and uncertainty associated with delegation, you need to lay the groundwork for success. Here are four concrete actions you can take to improve the experience:

  • Before you begin, clarify the work that needs to be delegated. Which tasks can be realistically done by others? And what absolutely must be done yourself?
  • When delegating, communicate the objectives and goals of each task so that the person accomplishing it knows what is expected and how it fits with the larger picture of work.
  • Agree upon the deadline and the milestones (or how often to check up on the work).
  • Finally, make sure your team members know they can turn to you for any questions if and when roadblocks appear.

In the end, despite the internal struggle, delegation is a reality none of us can escape if we really want to focus on priorities and scale our business. Just remember that when you do actually hand out work to your colleagues, there is a proper way to communicate.

Read this blog post for 10 phrases you should never say when delegating a task.  

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