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Confessions of a Bad Delegator

If you want to make sure something gets done, do you do it yourself? Read on, fellow micro-managers: It's time to get a little help.

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If you want to make sure something gets done, do it yourself. 

For too long, that's been my operating principle. I was an only child, raised by parents who both worked long hours, and I grew up accustomed to looking after myself. I carried that habit into adulthood, and in some ways it served me well as an independent writer. But when I became president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors last year, I knew I'd have to change my ways. It wasn't easy, but I learned to delegate.

If you find yourself working late hours and believing you're the only one who can get things done or who cares about doing them right, read on. If I can learn to delegate, anyone can.

What was tripping me up, I discovered, are the four fallacies of the poor delegator:

1. It's quicker to do it myself than to explain it.

Have you found yourself thinking this? I have, many times. And many of those times, that thought process has kept me from handing off a task. But here's the thing: It's only true the first time. The second time you hand off the same task, a much shorter explanation is needed, assuming the people who work for you aren't brain-dead. The third time, you may only need a sentence or two of explanation. The fourth time it may be no more than, "Could you do this for me?" And the fifth time, the person you delegate the task to might find a better way of doing it than you ever would have. 

2. There's no one to hand this task to--everyone already has too much to do.

If it's true that your staff is overworked, that's probably a good sign--business must be going well--but it's a bad excuse for not delegating. Let me ask a simple question: In your organization, whose time is most valuable, yours or your employees'?

As the person running the company, you're in the best position to find new opportunities, make important new contacts, and find new strategies and new directions. Anything that takes you away from those functions is a financial loss to your business. So begin by asking the people in your company if they have the time to take on a new task--you may find they're not as overloaded as you think.

If they truly are swamped, you have a wide array of other options in today's world, with numerous websites offering connections with freelancers and contractors all over the country or the world who'd be willing to take on pretty much any job on a one-time basis. Yes, there is someone you can hand the task off to, all you have to do is look.

3. It won't get done right.

That's a great big stumbling block, isn't it? We're so indispensable that no one can do a good job but ourselves. Thinking this led me in my early days of working with a researcher to explain jobs to him in minute detail as though I were instructing a cocker spaniel.

My first suggestion is: Get over yourself. My second suggestion is to ask yourself what the consequences would be if the task were done wrong, or even not exactly as you would have done it. Would it really matter that much? And if so, would it be impossible to fix?

Unless you're certain the answer to both questions is yes, it's time to let go a little and try trusting the people who work for you. That will work to their benefit--they'll have more interesting jobs and be more engaged if you give them greater responsibility. And it'll help you hire and retain better people since the best and brightest won't stick around if you don't give them real responsibility and high-level tasks.

4. I'll look ineffective or uninformed.

This is the most frightening fallacy and one that's a challenge for me because ASJA has so many different projects and processes going on at once that it's not possible to know all of them in detail. It's easy to worry about looking like I don't know everything that's going on, or even that I'm not really needed.

It's very important to let go of this fallacy which can lead you to micro-manage your employees or even unconsciously create a crisis so that you can then be the one to solve it. (I've seen business leaders do this more than once.) As the head of your organization, however large or small, you're in a vital position of responsibility, whether or not you know the details of every project or directly take part in every decision. Chances are it took a lot of hard work and smarts for you to get here, and everyone who works with you knows that and respects you for it. If so, you don't have to prove your worth by knowing every detail or sitting in on every meeting. And if not, you've got much bigger problems than poor delegation.

IMAGE: slightlyeverything/Flickr
Last updated: Apr 4, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
@MindaZetlin




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