Are There Times When You Shouldn’t Delegate?

A reader asks:  

“Okay, I get it – I’m supposed to delegate more. But in practice, it’s not always that easy. For instance, there are things that I’d love to delegate to my development manager – like following up with funders after I meet with them – but I don’t think she would do them as well as I need. Realistically, even if you’d like to delegate something, aren’t there times when managers just need to roll up their sleeves and do it themselves?”


Yes, sometimes.

Ha! You probably thought that we were going to remind you of the principle that we like to chant like a mantra: if your organization is going to have the biggest impact possible, you need to spend your time in the areas where you’ll have the biggest impact, which by definition means moving other work off your plate.  And it’s true.

But you’re absolutely right that it’s a nuanced question, and you have to be thoughtful about figuring out when delegating makes sense and when it doesn’t. You’re never going to be living in the ideal world, and even though you ideally might delegate something, sometimes that won’t be perfectly workable and you might just need to get it done.

What’s important is to pay attention to patterns:

•    A pattern of regular hesitation: If you find yourself regularly hesitant to delegate to someone who really should be able to do the work, then you’re probably facing a performance problem, not a delegation problem. (And if that’s the case, the section on addressing performance problems in our Tools Library might help.) But if you have a staff member who overall is doing a great job but there’s one relatively minor or rare thing that you don’t feel confident giving her, it often makes sense to simply work around that.

•    A pattern of “it’s no one’s job”: If you’re continually doing things that shouldn’t fall to you but don’t naturally fall to anyone else either, think about whether you can spread out that work that falls between the cracks more evenly. You shouldn’t be the only one picking it up. Which often is connected to…

•    A pattern of organizational growth: Is your organization growing and you can tell that someday you’ll need a fill-in-the-blank but you don’t have one yet? If that’s the case, make sure that you’re thinking about what bundles of work you shouldn’t be doing (but are), and start building the capacity for that role (including keeping an eye out for potential candidates).

•    A pattern of preferring to do things yourself: Be brutally honest with yourself about whether you could get your staff member’s skills where you need them with just a small investment of time up-front  but prefer not to because doing it yourself feels easier or more familiar.

Make sense? Consider this Delegation 201: Reality.