The Delegation Myth

There’s a general myth about delegation to the effect that successful people can delegate and those less successful can’t. Like all myths, it has a small grain of truth behind it, but I’ve discovered over the years that the myth serves as a justification for those with resources and power and all too often belittles those with insufficient resources and power.

Once upon a time, I was a legislative director for a Congressman. I worked ten to twelve hour days and took work home on weekends. Why? Because I had a wife and four children and needed that job… and because, at that time, no one else was hiring someone with my skills. I couldn’t delegate the work because everyone else in the office was working nearly as hard… and because Congressional staff budgets are fixed, there was no money to hire anyone else. So we were among the first on the Hill to develop “computerized” correspondence answering systems using electronic typewriters with limited memories [remember, this was 45 years ago]. Getting seemingly personalized responses, however, just encouraged more constituents to write the Congressman. Likewise, other innovations just had a similar result. So, in the end, we all ended up working the same long hours, except we were accomplishing more [and, believe me, all politicians want more].

I could list a range of occupations and professionals in other fields whom I know and who were or are relatively successful, but never made it truly big-time, and frankly, the reason was that they chose not to delegate. Were they wrong? It all depends on viewpoint. Two of them were homebuilding contractors, and they chose not to delegate that much because they weren’t satisfied with what delegation did to the quality of their building. I also knew an attorney who kept his firm small for the same reasons.

In some fields, delegation is a chancy proposition, especially with non-profit or volunteer organizations with limited resources. That’s because because doing anything right and on time takes effort, expertise, and dedication, and if the person doing the delegating doesn’t have a certain degree of control over those to whom work is delegated, the odds are something won’t get done… or done right.

And when the person in charge is the one held responsible, the question is often a choice between spending long hours doing it themselves so that they’re sure it’s done right, or spending less time knowing that the results won’t be as good. Sometimes, it doesn’t make a difference, but when the would-be delegator is publicly and financially responsible for the project, and there aren’t resources to delegate properly, sometimes they just can’t risk delegating… and they’re called “workaholics” or control freaks. Most of the time they’re neither. They’re just exercising self-preservation… and sooner or later, a good many of them will leave that position, and their superiors will wonder why… or come up with the rationalization that the person who left “just couldn’t delegate.”

9 thoughts on “The Delegation Myth”

  1. Daze says:

    In my experience, unless you have time to build a trusting relationship with the delegate, preferably over the long term, it takes almost as long to instruct and supervise the delegate as it does to do it yourself – sometimes longer.

  2. Tim says:

    I am with @Daze on this one. The key is trust and jointly accepting the responsibility for any risk.

    If you can share your concerns honestly in any team then you can get a better result. Sounds good – but often in my experience, sharing concern was either viewed as weakness or not “thinking positive” (that awfully destructive paradigm).

  3. JakeB says:

    Another Amen from me.

    My experience has been that when your boss criticizes you for not delegating better, it’s just a way of saying, “you’re not getting as much done as should be in my ideal world.” The relationship of that world to the real one, however . . . .

  4. Tom says:

    If one cannot do everything oneself one has to delegate.

    In fact for some years now I have chosen to vote for people who seems to be able to delegate successfully and to me that means they have the ability to choose wisely from among a group of people. To my mind that is the difficulty in delegating and that is the quality “Successful People” have. These SP’s also know how hard to drive their delegates.

    Dealing with people always requires trust. Trust depends on communication. Successful delegation of responsibility is also dependent on communication.

    I would agree that not all successful people know how to delegate but I wonder if it’s true that all who can delegate are successful.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Some of us do not have a choice. I am an Emergency Physician. Any physician who works in a hospital setting has no choice.

    I MUST delegate.

    Nurses hang the meds and fluids, do the minor procedures (starting IVs, placing cathers, running the vital signs, etc.), and do the minute by minute/hour by hour monitoring of a patient.

    Lab techs draw the blood and run the samples.

    Rad techs shoot the X-rays and CT scans. I rely upon other doctors (radiologists) to read some (not all) of the studies.

    Then there are the specialists I call when I can’t just send a person home or if there is a specific question that needs to be asked.

    I have to rely on people who are essentially manual labor to transport patients from the ED to the floor once they are admitted and back and forth to radiology or the other departments where they are getting their studies.

    Since I work as in independent contractor for a hospital, I get very little say in who these people upon whom I must rely are.

    Who is responsible? Me. Who is the one who gets sued if any of this goes wrong? Me. Whose paycheck is curtailed if patient satisfaction goes down due to events/outcomes beyond my control? Mine.

    It’s like being a military officer (been there, done that).

    Delegation is great: there is no way I can do all of the various things needed in a modern ED and maintain any kind of reasonable work flow…. but it does have a few downsides.

    1. Tim says:

      I would suggest this is not strictly delegation as a surgeon would not consider the use of an anaethetist to be delegation. It is a use of supportive and complementary skills which is entirely different.

      (Apologies if this has appeared twice as the app ignored my first response)

      1. Wine Guy says:

        Surgeon/Anesthesia is different from Emergency Medicine.

  6. Hannabel says:

    I get bashed fairly often by my bosses who say I don’t delegate enough then blame away when results from those few whom I delegate to don’t pan out successfully.

    Additionally, some of my few delegatees (heh!) don’t seem to, or worse refuse to, grasp the project’s importance in doing things precisely – like using the right tools, doing adequate research and/or application of the proper skill set; then I end up back at ground zero fixing their stuff and losing hours I should’ve saved doing the job myself.

    For now, I only delegate the most trivial & mundane. Takes more out of me but the sense of accomplishment that follows makes it worth it all at journey’s end.

  7. Chris says:

    If your staff isn’t getting their job done there needs to be consequences. The same applies to you. If a manager in the chain is putting unreasonable expectations on their people and decides to hold them accountable for things that couldn’t be accomplished they will end up hurting their organization and eventually (ideally) they will also be held accountable for not building a highly functioning organization.

    Unfortunately these ideals do break down, which is a sure sign that someone in the chain is not a good or effective manager (could even be the CEO).

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