Our reluctance to delegate

Delegation is one of those aspects of leadership that all leaders want to think they do well. Most leaders have discovered the necessity of delegation. But many view delegation as just that: a necessity. Something we have to do. We don’t view delegation as something that is good for the organization or for us, personally. It’s something that we should do because, well… let’s face it. None of us can do it all!  But there are many reasons why leaders are reluctant to delegate.

We’ve all heard the adage “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Many people in leadership consider that adage gospel. We may delegate some things, but the important things, well, if we want it done right, of course, we should be the ones to do it. So we don’t delegate as we should. All of us are also familiar with the saying “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Our primary focus as leaders is people development. Delegation is one of the ways we help those around us develop their own leadership skills.

I have identified three major obstacles to delegation. This is not an exhaustive list, but it does encapsulate some of the main thoughts behind our reluctance to delegate.

1. The challenge of time

One of the biggest challenges I have personally faced which has made me reluctant to delegate is the challenge of time. By the time I explained the task to someone else, I could have done it myself many times over!

For example, I once worked at a church where one of my responsibilities was to upload the weekly sermon to our website. The process was rather lengthy and technical. It took me several hours each week to finish. Where would I find the time, much less someone with the technical know-how to be able to delegate this task to someone? After several years, I decided to do something about it. I looked for someone with the capability – not expertise – to be able to manage the technical aspects of the task.

After training them thoroughly on the process, I turned it over to them. I thought that the time invested in training someone else would be greater than the time I would save by not doing it. It turned out that the time I saved by letting someone else do the job was more than I had even imagined and I had no reason to be reluctant to delegate.

2. The issue of fear

The fear of failure is a barrier that many leaders face which makes them reluctant to delegate. What if they make a mistake? If they mess up? What if they don’t do it the way I want it done? I’ll just have to go back and fix the mistakes they have made, so I might as well just do it myself.

Failure is one of the possible outcomes in any given situation. Proper preparation will reduce the possibility of failure. Of course, we can never eliminate failure as a possibility. But leaders are risk-takers by nature. The desired result is not found in eliminating risk, but in minimizing it. So start by identifying your fear. Then minimize the risk that is the root of that fear. For example, if you fear delegation because you’re afraid that the work won’t get done, that’s the perceived risk of delegation.

Now that you have identified the possible risk, consider what you would need to do to minimize that risk. If your concern is that the work will not get done, determine a follow-up system for each subtask involved. Outline each task, set deadlines for them, and hold a meeting at each deadline to ensure that all tasks get completed.

Identifying your fear and then minimizing the risk associated with that fear will help put your mind at ease when fear is holding you back from delegating responsibility to others. Keep in mind that doing something right, and doing something the way you think it should be done are two different things. Remember, it’s the final product or outcome that is important, not the process used to achieve it.

3. Pride comes before a fall

Some leaders love the adulation that comes with a job well-done so much that they are reluctant to delegate tasks to others.  They fear that if they delegate, they won’t get the credit for doing it. All of us enjoy a little praise. We like recognition for our hard work. We love the recognition that comes from doing a good job. Finally, we want others to see us as the hard-working, responsible, capable people that we are. The problem comes when that becomes the goal of doing something. If your highest goal is the praise you will receive for doing it, then what you’re really saying is “I’m more important than the team I have surrounding me”.

Ultimately, this is a sign of insecurity. Insecurity is not what we want to portray as leaders. Also, the mind of an insecure leader will perceive any praise that is not directed toward them as a threat to their leadership. But the opposite is true. As you develop others and give them the freedom to lead, you increase their loyalty to you. In fact, they will often give you the credit for things that you had nothing to do with. Secure leaders are not concerned with who gets the credit.

Pride also comes into play when we don’t delegate because we see delegation as an admission that we can’t handle our workload. We tend to see delegation as an admission that we are overwhelmed. Or we see it as a sign that we lack the organizational skills to keep on top of everything. To delegate would make us look just a little “less” in the eyes of those who are watching us as leaders. So we cling to our workload in spite of actually feeling overwhelmed. We sacrifice efficiency and progress instead of delegating.

What Should I Delegate?

So, what should we delegate to others? Obviously, not everything we do can be delegated. If so, we wouldn’t be necessary at all! Some general questions to consider when deciding which things to delegate would be:

  1. Is this something that only I can do? Does this require certain security privileges that only I have?
  2. Do they have the initiative, interest and intelligence/imagination to accomplish this?
  3. Do they have the leadership skills necessary to manage the resources necessary to perform this?

If the responsibility that we want to delegate is something that only we can do because of security clearances, privacy issues, confidentiality issues or behind the scenes knowledge, we cannot delegate that responsibility. When I ask if this is something that only you can do, I’m not asking if this is something that only you can do well. If you don’t start the process of delegating some of your responsibilities, you’re not a leader. You’re a do-er. Be a leader and begin the process of delegating some of your responsibility to others who can assist you in leading.

What are some things that you would add to this list?

Tom is an author, speaker, and coach. His specialty is leadership development in churches and helping churches identify obstacles to growth.