When you want to delegate but are afraid to: 6 pitfalls to avoid

As a people manager, there are a number of responsibilities we have that may seem challenging, not just when starting out, but at any time as a manager. Some of those include delivering critical feedback, communicating bad news, putting someone on a performance improvement plan, resolving conflict and delegating (among others).

Delegating can feel weird to some. The biggest challenge I see in new managers is determining when to delegate and when not to delegate. Some may not have the confidence to delegate; some may not know what is appropriate to delegate. Some may be concerned with how it looks to others to delegate and not to do all the work themselves. Some, quite frankly, may have control issues or suffer from perfectionism. In that case, delegating may seem out of the question to them.

There is certainly a level of trust that must exist between a manager and their team to delegate appropriately. This trust goes both ways. The manager needs to trust that the work will be completed and completed in a way that supports the objectives of the effort. Team members also need to be able to trust the manager to delegate interesting work that fits their skills or even stretches them from time to time.

Delegating meatier projects is an excellent development opportunity for your teams. People want purpose in their work. People, usually, relish a challenge. Whenever you have the chance to delegate an interesting project instead of taking it on yourself, try it. Your team members may surprise you. And, when they perform well, you perform well. After all, you are a team.

There are several pitfalls I have seen managers fall into; I have fallen into them myself early in my career. Keep these in mind when assigning work.

  1. Don’t hoard work. This may seem obvious but the short note is…delegate. I have known managers who keep all of the work to themselves to appear valuable to their leadership. Unfortunately, some cultures still support and reward those who put in extra hours and are the “doer”. In those cultures, the role of the manager is under-appreciated so managers don’t manage; they don’t delegate. I encourage managers to think before they hoard. If the culture is really one that rewards hoarding of work, or what I call the “hero syndrome”, try and nudge the culture. Get a group of leaders and managers together to try and change that.
  2. Don’t delegate all of the work. On the flip side, people don’t respect managers who do nothing but assign work and not roll up their sleeves from time to time. I once had a peer several years ago who did nothing but “manage”. The problem was she started to appear that she had nothing to do. All she did was act as a traffic cop assigning projects to the three people on her team while she engaged in, what appeared to be, nothing. Unfortunately, this did not bode well for her because she was asked to find another job.
  3. Don’t just delegate tasks. One of the biggest mistakes I see is when a manager delegates simple tasks but keeps the broader project to herself. Instead, share the overall objective and context as to what the work is and why it is important to the organization. Try delegating a work stream or even the entire project instead of just a few tasks. I learned in my very first management class to delegate goals and not tasks. Delegating goals empowers the team member to do a complete job and feel a sense of purpose. To only get tasks piecemeal is not very motivating. Once again, I ask you to put yourself in their shoes and practice empathy. How would you feel if that is all you got from your manager?
  4. Don’t micromanage. Once you delegate, whether it be a project or part of a project, let it go (to some degree…see below). Don’t stand over your team member and make sure they do everything the way you think it should be done. I have written a bit about micromanaging before. Definitely set deadlines and have project status updates but don’t hover. “How” someone does something may not be important if they get to the same end result. Catch yourself if your team member is not doing something the way you would do it. This can be especially difficult for those new to delegating. The old saying: “If you can’t get something done right, do it yourself” does not apply. Resist that urge.
  5. Don’t disappear. Delegating certainly means to assign work and empower others to manage an effort but you should not be too far away. Your team members may need feedback or they may need you as a sounding board. As a manager, you need to be that person. Providing feedback and coaching is part of effective delegation. Some managers struggle with giving feedback and, therefore, avoid it. This is one of the most important roles a manager plays. Delegation does not mean you, as the manager, has no role to play. I have senior managers on my team and they run their projects but we discuss the goals, the approach, the change management components of what we are doing. That is the role I play on the team.
  6. Don’t let accountability slip. Delegating does not mean to assign a project and forget it. Setting deadlines, reviewing their approach and checking in are all a part of managing effectively. As the manager, you are accountable for certain work to get done. I had a friend new to management say she was just so nervous to delegate but she knew it was the right thing to do. She would delegate a project and then had knots in her stomach for weeks while she got out of the way. Getting out of the way doesn’t mean you can’t check in, ask questions and brainstorm with your team member. None of this is micro-managing. This is effective management.

The trick to delegating is to strike the right balance — don’t delegate too much but delegate enough. Don’t hover but don’t disappear. Finding this balance takes time and experience. Through trial and error, you can figure out what your team is capable of and what you are capable of. This is how trust gets built.

There is no denying that delegating, holding accountable, providing coaching and feedback instead of doing the work yourself takes more time. But, this is the crux of people management. Your job is to develop others so they can grow and add value to the organization. Delegation allows your team to achieve this.

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