When Delegating Seems Like More Work for You

When Delegating Seems Like More Work for You

A lot of us accidental bosses – those of us who found ourselves leading a team because we’re good at doing the work ourselves – are terrible at delegating. One version of that resistance sounds like this:

“I just feel like it’ll take more energy to delegate it than to do it myself.”

There’s also this variation:

“I could do it myself in the time it’ll take to explain it to someone else.”

I know that tune. I used to think I wrote that tune. But I eventually learned that it is, not to mince words, bullshit.

Yes, the first time you delegate it, it will cost you more time and energy than if you did it yourself. The next time, the ratio of effort required from you vs effort required from the person you delegated it to will begin to shift. And before long, all it takes is the effort to forward the email, stop at their desk, shoot them an instant message. “Could you take care of this?” “Sure.” Done.

And from a cost-benefit analysis standpoint… don’t get me started. This is not about five minutes here and five minutes there. It’s about the cumulative opportunity cost vs the benefits of you being able to focus on the highest-impact, most important stuff that’s available to you to work on. Think for a moment of the benefit to your business – and to you personally – if you could quit doing the little tasks you know could be done by someone else, and get your head above water now and then.

Now tell me again how not delegating is the most efficient way forward.

I know – believe me, I know – how tempting it is to say you’re just going to do it this once, just because you’re really slammed today and it just needs to get done and your colleague is busy anyway. And because it comes easily to you, and it’ll only take five minutes.

But here’s my tough love for you:

  • When you refuse to delegate things, you are actively contributing to a bottleneck in your business. If it can’t be done without you, then the business is overly dependent on you. Repeat your new mantra after me: My company can thrive without me. I will systematize.
  • It is (just maybe) possible that you are being a control freak. I’m not judging; we’ve all been there. And your teammates may not do things exactly the way you would. Allow for the possibility that their way may be better. Invite the possibility that you may be standing in the way of someone else doing the thing they were born to do. Imagine delegating as an act of generosity.
  • You are in a rut. Until you break out of it, you can’t move forward. What are the odds that if you do it just this one more time, that you will have a change of heart next time and finally get around to delegating it? It’s time. Now.

Here is the best advice I ever got about how to delegate. (We can talk about how to figure out what to delegate another day.) Picture this:

  1. You are ready to do the damned thing yourself and be done with it. Step one: Pause for just a second.
  2. Ask the person to whom you would like to delegate the task to come and join you. (Psst… Got a virtual team/office? Check the comments for workarounds.)
  3. Say, “I want to start delegating this to you. This first time, I just want you to watch what I do and take notes on how I do it. Like, write the instruction manual. Ask me as many questions as you want. Next time, it’s your turn & I’ll watch.”
  4. Now, do it yourself. Explain what you’re doing as you do it. Answer your colleague’s questions.
  5. Ask them to send you their notes via email.
  6. Review the notes. Fill in any gaps.
  7. Next time it comes up, ask them to take a run at it while you observe. Refer to the instructions. Make note of any further gaps you notice.
  8. Ask your colleague to fill in the additional gaps.
  9. You’re done. And now you never have to do that thing again.

This changed my life. Seriously. Instead of you having to figure out how to teach someone how to do it, just do it & trust their intelligence. Take it from me: It works, and you will feel amazing.

Now, what are you going to do with all the time and energy that you’ve freed up?

Edited at 9:19 am to add a note for those who work with virtual teams.


  1. Vanessa LeBourdais

    This is great, Lauren. Love the how to delegate list. Any thoughts on how to do that in a virtual team? (Can’t just bring someone over to my desk in the moment to watch me :-).

    • Lauren

      Hi Vanessa – Can you use Skype, or screensharing software like join.me? That’d be my first choice.

      Another possible hack, if it’s not something you do at a desk or screen (here I’m relying on the fact that I know you offline & am aware that a bunch of the work you do is offsite), would be to dictate what you’re doing into a voice recorder (I use my iPhone’s built-in Voice Memos app), and then either send the memo to your team member to transcribe it, or use a transcription service (I’ve used Verbal Ink & had excellent service).

      Does that help? Let me know if I’ve missed the mark – I’m sure my personal work style & context are biasing me here.

  2. Vanessa LeBourdais

    Yes, I like that idea, thanks. I’ll try a voice recorder. I do use skype.

    I just hired a writer I am training to write grants. At the moment I’m coaching and letting her take a fly at it, and then going through the work via skype to show her how I’d do it, teaching the concepts along the way. But I really like the idea of having the person document it!!! Building in systems creating into the process of delegation.

    BTW I was a long-time resister of delegation. But after the first successful delegation I was completely hooked. Feels like freedom! And totally worth the cost. Even when someone fails at the task – so much is learned about hiring and delegation anyway.

  3. Denise Taschereau

    Great post Lauren. Learning about Situational Leadership was a big eye opener for me on delegating. It’s a great way to manage a more nuanced approach to delegation. It provides a road map to – understand where an employee is at with a given task. Sometimes you can toss it on their desk and say giv’er but sometimes you have to be a little more hands on.

    I’ve made the mistake many times of delegating to someone who is a star 90% of the time (so i toss the task over) only to discover that for that particular task at hand, I’ve just hung them out to dry. The biggest ‘a-ha’ for me was that you can’t use the same style of delegation all the time – even with the same person.

    Here is a quick summary > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situational_leadership_theory. All that said, I still suck at delegation, thanks for the prompt to get better…

    • Lauren

      Excellent point, Denise – I have definitely assumed here that a) the person you’re delegating to has the basic skills & motivation to take on the thing you want to delegate, and b) you have already had a conversation with them to establish that it makes sense for them to start taking it on. So I’ve kind of written this post from the perspective of someone who already knows that delegation could & should happen, but is procrastinating on doing it.

      Good food for thought – perhaps an additional post or two (or ten?) is in order to talk about more of the nuances.

    • Jeremy

      I love this comment Denise. I have felt this very frustration on the worker end of things. It’s about discernment. There’s nothing more frustrating than being micromanaged on a sophomoric task. Except maybe being left to hang out to dry on something complex where there is a big learning curve! Good leaders possess situational judgement. They know when they are needed, and when they aren’t.

  4. Elsa Smith

    Invaluable observations Lauren, thank you!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.