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Jennifer V. Miller

Management

The Stories That Undermine Your Ability to Delegate

Understanding internal stories is essential for effective leadership

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2023 - 11:03

What are the stories we tell ourselves? It’s a simple question, yet one rich with possibility. In my years of creating leadership development programs, one of the “stories” that continually surfaces with leaders is “I need to do X for my direct reports because they are not yet ready/willing/able to do it for themselves.”

At first blush, this story seems an open-and-shut case. And, for some leaders tasked with leading inexperienced employees, perhaps this story is true. One of the ongoing dilemmas of leadership is determining when to turn over a decision or task to an employee. Questions to consider range from, “Is this person ready to accept responsibility?” to “What happens if this person drops the ball?”

Fear of delegation and its connection to control

Deeper within the psyche of the leader lies another story: “What happens if I relinquish control?” This story is much tougher to tell because “command and control” leadership is out of fashion these days. Still, leaders must be willing to listen to the story playing in their heads. Often, this story is buried beneath a series of other stories. It’s like the varied strata of rock buried deep beneath the topsoil. The stories at the surface are: “It’s so much faster if I just do it,” “They don’t understand the political landscape like I do,” and “This project is too high-visibility to allow for missteps.” Deeper down, the stories might be: “They’ll lose respect for me,” “If I delegate everything, then my job will be deemed expendable,” and “What if they’re better at it than me?”

Getting to that bedrock foundation—fear of losing control—can be unnerving. I often counsel leaders to play the “What if?” game with me. “So, if X did happen, then what would happen?” The leader replies, then I say, “And if that happened, then what would happen?” We continue on until finally, we come to the point where I say, “So if these things happen, how bad would that be?” Usually, the leader comes to realize that the perceived drawback has been blown out of proportion. Or, at the very least, we discover ways to deal with any downsides of handing over some measure of control to the employee.

I also point out to leaders that if the feared outcome is “But the person might fail,” I reply, “Exactly! That’s how people learn.” We then explore the consequences of failure. Is this the right project to support some miscalculations? Can we build in some coaching time to allow for those invariable “oops” moments? The reality is that even seasoned workers will make mistakes. Trying to avoid every possible detour simply isn’t possible.

A simple process for gaining comfort with delegation

If you are a leader struggling with the challenge of having too much to do (and who isn’t?), I suggest creating a three-part list:
1. Things I already delegate
2. Things I might consider delegating
3. Things I can’t delegate

Review the list. For the items listed in points 2 and 3, ask yourself: “Why not?” Then, level with yourself. For every reason listed under why not, push yourself to consider the stories you’re telling yourself. Perhaps you’ll uncover some undiscovered fallacy under the bedrock that can be brought to light and dispensed.

Understanding the internal stories we tell ourselves is essential for effective leadership. By acknowledging and challenging these stories, we can break free from the constraints of unnecessary control. When you delegate tasks and decisions, you not only empower your team members but also allow them to grow and learn through their experiences. And yes, they may stumble along the way. But those missteps are valuable lessons in their journey toward becoming capable contributors.

Leadership isn’t about maintaining an iron grip on every aspect of a project or team. It’s about cultivating an environment of trust, growth, and shared responsibility. So, take a moment to reflect on the stories you’re telling yourself. Are they holding you back from embracing the full potential of your team? Break free from the unnecessary burden of control and watch your leadership thrive.

First published June 19, 2023, on People Equation.

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About The Author

Jennifer V. Miller’s picture

Jennifer V. Miller

Jennifer V. Miller researches and writes about the evolving role of leadership in the workplace. She is a co-author of two leadership books and the creator of the award-winning blog People Equation.