The disastrous myth of delegation
Four simple words can strike true terror into the heart of any competent adult. “Let me help you.” If someone offers to help, don’t let them. Run. They’re trying to trick you — even if they don’t know it. Just say no. This is your brain on delegation. You see where I’m going here.
Actually, let me rephrase. Don’t let just anyone help you. Because help from the wrong person can screw things up even worse.
Functional grownups know how to turn down help. They also know better than to go around offering it all the time. That sounds weird. Because we’re so often told to delegate. To work together. Teamwork, everyone cheers. You may have heard similar mantras at your company retreat.
Your boss might love to delegate. In fact, that’s all some of them do. They sit around and come up with extra jobs for people.
Sometimes they don’t even know why. They’ll just say something like “increasing productivity.”
But most often, it’s just paperwork they don’t want to do.
For the rest of us, delegating is bad advice. Why?
You’re still responsible
We aren’t bosses, or we’re middle bosses. We’re held accountable for what we accomplish, or don’t. So when you delegate work — even if your boss encourages you to — guess who still has to answer for mistakes?
Because blaming other people looks bad. Even when it’s true. That sucks, but get used to it.
Allow me to speak from experience. I’m part professor, part staff. That means my boss(es) often delegate a lot of their grunt work to me.
Sometimes they tell me to “put together a team,” or a committee, or hire a student. That would be great, except I already can’t trust half our staff to get things right the first time. Paperwork. Scheduling. Budget issues. Every single day, I’m checking up behind someone else for mistakes.
That’s a given. After all, sometimes you have no choice but to work with other people and trust them. In the Ronald Reagan sense — trust but verify.
This kind of trust is exhausting. You’re still responsible for the work you delegate. So be careful about who you delegate to.
Delegation is extra work
Most people who offer help actually don’t know how to do your job. Alas, you might be obliged, so you can look like a team player. That means you have to show them. What a shit sandwich.
Often, I’m training a novice to do a part of my job. It actually doesn’t help me that much. It helps them.
Delegation is really about the other person. You’re allowing them to gain experience and, hopefully, move up the ladder. You’re letting them prove themselves. By handling more responsibility, they’re showing you and your boss that they deserve a better job.
On the flip side, you’re assuaging someone’s conscience. They see you doing a ton of work, and they feel useless.
They don’t actually want to help. They want to feel less guilty. Or they want recognition and praise.
That’s not a bad thing. But don’t fucking lie. Regardless, these people want something from me — delegation isn’t entirely altruistic. It doesn’t save you energy. Training someone and delegating tasks to them takes up a lot of your time. You’re also putting your ass on the line.
In a perfect world, I’d be the perfect mentor. But like yours, my world involves evermore work for the same pay. So faced with two choices — getting shit done, or delegating, you should go with option A. Unless there’s a very good reason to do otherwise.
It would be nice if workplaces rewarded this kind of delegation more. Usually, it’s invisible work. Even worse, people expect expressions of gratitude. In truth, the company should be thanking you. Effective delegation is hard. It requires skill and commitment. And patience.
Delegation can be a nightmare
When someone offers help, it’s perfectly natural to regard them with suspicion. Think about it. Most competent people I know are fucking busy. They don’t have time for extra work.
There’s a right and wrong way to offer help, in my humble opinion. The right way: you notice someone struggling with a specific project. You offer an insight that can speed up their work — like an Excel trick.
Or you offer to complete a specific job for someone. I’ve done that. When I do, it’s usually something I’ve done before. Something the other person doesn’t have to explain, or show me how to do.
And when I offer that help, I actually do it. I move it to the top of my stack, and it’s done by the end of the day, or the week.
There’s several wrong ways to help. For starters, the person opens with criticism. Yeah,they criticize you for not delegating. After they’ve browbeat you into tentatively accepting their help, they sit down and “brainstorm” with you about your approach. Meanwhile, you’re hoping a siren or something goes off so you can get the hell out of there.
Ten minutes of “brainstorming” reveals to you that this person has no idea what you’re trying to accomplish. But you’ve been tricked into delegating. So you let them. Your fate rests in their hands.
Now the real nightmare begins. This “helpful” person leaves your office. Now you start to wonder. Are they actually going to do what they said? You go home and try to sleep. But you can’t.
You do your best to focus on the next project at hand. A day goes by, maybe two. You email that helpful person. You have to be nice, though. Why? Because they’ve offered to help you, in theory.
They don’t respond.
So you try texting.
They don’t respond.
So you start stalking your coworker. You walk by their office three times a day, hoping to catch them. But they’re not there.
A week goes by. That work you delegated actually came with a deadline. It’s looming. You consider pulling an all nighter to get it done. But you worry about how your helpful coworker will react. Will they get offended? Will they spread rumors about you?
You imagine them ragging on you in the office. They’ll talk about how you initially delegated work to them, and then did it yourself. Wasted their time. “If only she’d been more patient.”
Suddenly, you’re labeled a bad team member. Or “not a team player.” Practically a compliment in my book.
Automate, don’t delegate
Delegating usually helps everyone except you. It makes other people feel good. Helps their careers. But if you need to get shit done, stop delegating. Learn faster ways to blow through your work.
All kinds of tools lie at your disposal. Maybe right under your nose. Excel formulas. Automated forms. Scripts. Google add-ons.
Before you delegate some task, try automating it first. Computers don’t have egos. You can tell them what to do, and they start right away.
You don’t have to check in on computers. They give you — gasp — a progress bar. Computers don’t make false promises, either.
They’ll do exactly what they offer.
Hack your work schedule. There’s a dozen articles on Medium about work cycles and productivity. Read them.
You can also just go shopping at Staples. Find ways of organizing your work space to maximize your own organization and productivity. With a little brain juice, you can cut your work hours in half.
Delegating can work well sometimes. It’s even necessary for big projects. But it’s overrated, overused, and misunderstood. We should delegate for the right reasons, to accomplish more. Not to make people feel good.
Learn to turn down help. There’s nothing wrong with that. Your time is valuable. Not everyone who offers theirs has your interests in mind. You can save yourself a lot of stress by delegating less.