When you become a manager, your approach needs to evolve. Your role now includes getting work done with and through other people, instead of doing the work yourself. The best way to empower your team to get equitable, sustainable results is through effective delegation. Let’s say you have been clear and thoughtful in assigning a project to a team member by agreeing on expectations, planning to stay engaged, and calendaring opportunities for accountability and learning. You’re on your delegation a-game!
…Or are you?
When that team member walks into your office a week later and gives you a draft that emphasizes the wrong points, or asks you to step in and use your knowledge or relationships to advance the work, or when you realize the project will likely miss the deadline, what do you do? If you’re like many managers, you might end up taking back responsibility for some (or all) of the work. Now you are on the line for the next step(s) on that project. That’s what we call the delegation boomerang.
Take the Work Forward (Not Back!)
The delegation boomerang is incredibly common. We’ve all done it. We’re human, and we like being helpful, or hate seeing people struggle, or feel like we could do it better ourselves (and, to be honest, it would just be easier). (For typical motivations and how to talk yourself out of it, see the Delegation Boomerang FAQ.)
Regardless of your motivations—or the fact that your staff member may appreciate the help—the delegation boomerang can seriously undermine the work, your team, and you in the long term:
- It disempowers the owners of the work—they don’t get to figure out a plan, solve the problem, try it again, and improve.
- It harms your relationship with staff—you demonstrate a lack of trust in their abilities, which can be especially harmful for staff with marginalized identities who may already have to work harder to legitimize their skills.
- It makes it harder for you to diagnose performance problems when you never get to see people struggle and fail—or succeed.
- It diminishes your credibility and effectiveness—you do someone else’s work while yours piles up.
- It hurts your long-term growth and development, as you’re spending time on things you know how to do, rather than strengthening your own skills in new areas.
- It makes you a bottleneck in the work you have delegated—you become the “next step” in the project.
You’ve already spent a ton of time and energy delegating that project to your team member, so don’t take it back!
Dodge the Delegation Boomerang
Pay attention to the situations that bring out your delegation boomerang impulse and consider how to validate your team member’s concerns, requests for support, and the reality of the work, while resisting taking the project back.
|When…||…Then||Try Saying This:|
|…lack of confidence is in the mix…||…offer to workshop it together.||“I know this is a new project for you and I believe in you. At our next check-in, bring the options you can think of to get this back on track. We’ll look at them together and figure out a plan.”|
|…lack of experience is at play…||…give them coaching and more frequent input.||“It’s normal to bump up against these frustrations your first time trying this. I’ve got your back. Let’s dig into what’s challenging right now and increase our check-ins to twice a week while you’re getting your footing.”|
|…the first draft was poor..||…show them what needs to be changed and why. Then have them try it with a slice of the draft so you can check for understanding.||“Here is what needs to change in the draft. Here’s why: ___. Does that make sense? I’d like you to incorporate this feedback by the end of the day and send it to me. We’ll check in, and assuming your changes are spot on, let’s plan to have a full edited draft in by Friday EOD.”|
|…you hold important knowledge, skills, relationships…||…flex these without doing the legwork.||“I think my [knowledge, skills, relationships] could help with this. I’m happy to contribute once you’ve teed it up (scheduled the meeting, drafted some talking points, defined the ask, etc).”|
“This is something I have experience with. What specific questions can I answer based on my experience to help you take the next step?”
|…they are upset…||…empathize and support while keeping the work in their court.||“I’m sorry you’re grappling with that. Would it be helpful to role-play a feedback conversation about it?”|
|…they want a solution…||…emphasize their role as problem-solver.||“That is a problem. Why don’t you get on my calendar for later today? Bring some potential solutions or your best thinking, and we can talk through them.”|
Finally, support staff development by debriefing what they learned from owning the project or responsibility. Reinforce your commitment to supporting their ownership of the work and be explicit about why you did not take the work back: “When you came to me with the request that I edit and finalize the report, you probably noticed that I did not take it on. In fact, you held onto it and here’s what I saw you do/accomplish/learn: [share specific feedback or praise]. What was it like for you? What takeaways do you have from that experience?”
By resisting the delegation boomerang and keeping work squarely in the hands of its rightful owners, you’ll develop your people, increase confidence and capacity, and strengthen your relationships—while doing your own to-do list a major favor.