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How to figure out if you have a problem delegating—and what to do about it

Many managers need to work on this important skill, which not only reduces your workload but also makes your team stronger.

How to figure out if you have a problem delegating—and what to do about it
[Source photo: Viktor Ketal/iStock]
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In order to leverage the diverse strengths of your team and allow them to share and shine, you need to delegate. Delegating, when done well, not only reduces your own workload, it develops your employees, gives you and your team a bigger range of skills and impact, provides emergency back-up (since you’re not the only one who knows how to do something), creates inclusive opportunities, empowers people, and retains talent.

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That’s an important list if you care about engaging and motivating your team. Yet, for many managers, delegating feels like something they know they should do, but don’t do.

Sound familiar?

Here are 10 ways to know if you may have a delegation problem:

  1. You joke about being a “control freak,” but it’s not really a joke
  2. You worry about being seen as dispensable if someone else learns to do your job.
  3. Everything feels urgent to you
  4. You don’t trust giving projects to people you can’t “see working” in a remote or hybrid environment
  5. Most of your tasks feel comfortable to you
  6. You say, “I’ll do it”–even for tasks you know you shouldn’t be doing
  7. Your performance review mentions “needs to delegate more”
  8. You are addicted to adrenaline
  9. Your direct reports repeatedly ask if there’s something they can take off your plate
  10. Thinking about delegating makes you nauseous

If one or more of those sound familiar, you’re not alone. To get better at this important skill, the first step is recognizing that you have a delegation problem. But that’s only the beginning. It’s not enough just to be aware that your beliefs about delegation are keeping you from developing your team. You need to change your beliefs in order to change your behaviors. 

Here are some of the most common delegation-resistant beliefs I hear from the leaders I coach:

“I don’t have enough time to delegate!”
“I need to be in charge of this.”
“Nobody will do it like I will.”
“What if I don’t get the credit for this?”
“But I like doing this!”
“What if I’m not needed anymore?”

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Those mindsets make a lot of sense, especially if you have rarely experienced the benefits of delegation firsthand, or if you’ve delegated in the past, and it wasn’t as successful as you had hoped. (For the record, “hoping” is not a sound delegation strategy.) 

These mental barriers can quickly and easily form a vicious cycle, where you think, for example, “I can do it faster and easier myself,” which leads you to feel worried about delegating, which then leads you to do the work yourself. 

Here’s what you need to know to break this pattern:

Our thoughts drive our feelings, which drive our behaviors, which then drive our thoughts. So if you’re going to commit to improving your delegation game, you need to start by changing your thoughts. When you think differently, you feel different, and then you do something different—and in this case, that different thing should be delegating.

Here are three examples of some new think-feel-do patterns to try:

Think: “I get to reward my direct report with greater visibility.”
Feel: Excited for them—and for you.
Do: Delegate a task that raises their profile.
Impact: You free up your time for more pressing priorities, and you look (and feel) like a hero for sharing a high-profile project.

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Think: “I can finally take this task off my plate!”
Feel: Relieved
Do: Delegate a task you’ve outgrown, but is just the right size for someone else.
Impact: You get to focus on work that feels more fulfilling to you, while providing an excellent on-the-job development opportunity for someone else on the team.

Think: “If I ever want to take personal time off, I need someone else who knows how to do this!”
Feel: Determined
Do: Delegate a task that prepares someone to fill in for you so you can take a break.
Impact: You get a breather, and elevate someone on your team to feel mission-critical.

Changing your mindset isn’t easy. After all, if we believe something to be true (like “delegation is more effort than it’s worth”), we likely have experience to back it up—and a confirmation bias to seek evidence that reinforces our beliefs. However, if you’re going to get better at delegating, the first step is to start small. Pick one mindset that you’re willing to experiment with, and actively choose to seek out evidence that the new mindset just might be right.

For example, my coaching client Ari was drowning in due dates because he felt convinced that nobody could do his writing projects exactly the way he did it. I didn’t challenge him on that, but I did press him on his belief that “the way he did it” was the only valid way to get it done. I suggested he pick one task—writing pitch decks—that he would be willing to experiment with. 

Here’s what he came up with:

Think: “If I want to be able to contribute to higher-profile marketing materials for this company—or in my career—I have to write fewer pitch decks.”
Feel: Hopeful
Do: Show Shayna on his team examples of what his “gold standard” was for these documents, and then give her frequent feedback along the way as she completed one under his direction.

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The short-term impact was that he realized he could teach Shayna how to achieve a successful outcome without sacrificing quality. The longer term impact was that Ari had time to be delegated to, so that he could learn and take on the kind of projects that engaged and inspired him.

Delegation can be hard when we focus on what we’re losing (control, credit, certainty) rather than on what we’re gaining (time, development, a positive impact on others). To change your delegation strategy, start by changing your mindset—one thought at a time.