The Untold Tale of Why We Don’t Delegate

By Dan Brown, PCC

There are thousands of how-to books, articles and videos on delegating. Many managers have read and watched and, if you ask, they can reel off what makes for successful delegation and even agree to its necessity. Watching them in action, though, suggests they follow a different playbook. Only a minority of managers comfortably and routinely entrust tasks and decisions to their direct reports.

Instead, they look over shoulders, doubt the talent of their team members, fail to state why work is important, throw tasks at people without providing them with necessary authority to complete them…and so on. You have witnessed this behavior; maybe it even describes you at some point in your career.

What explains this widespread resistance to delegate?

One word: Mindset.

That’s why encouraging those who balk at delegating is likely to end in frustration and bewilderment if the path to improvement is skills training. Instead, it is far better to explore hidden assumptions. In other words, what frightening assumptions might managers harbor about deputizing direct reports to carry out an assignment with the authority to decide? The common, surface answer is that delegating will lead to shoddy work and bad decisions.  It’s faster to do it myself.

Deep down, however, what is most at stake is self-image. Consider this distinct possibility when you next observe the signs of a non-delegator: failing to listen, micromanaging, yanking back delegated work. As irksome as these behaviors are, they betray the unconscious lengths to which many managers will go to protect their self-image (not realizing, of course, how they are tarnishing their reputation). Looking at it this way positions you better to coach those who need to delegate.

For example, a mid-level-manager realizes that unless she starts delegating, not only will business results suffer, but so too will her family life and her health. The stakes could not be higher. She knows this.  Yet, when it comes to placing work into the competent hands of her team, she won’t let go. When I first met her, she wanted coaching on work-life balance; it became evident to both of us that unless she allowed others to step up, balance would remain out of reach.

I asked her what she most feared about delegating. “If I don’t produce the output myself and creatively solve the problems, then my role doesn’t mean much. You could say I’d be a waste of resources.” Anything else? I asked. She thought for a while and a cloud came over her face. Her organization is involved in public safety. “If I don’t come up with the plan and the specifics of how we execute it, then I’ve violated my oath to save lives.”

These are heavy assumptions. And that’s all they are – stories, narratives. What they are not is the truth.

Another client of mine, from a blue-collar background, had quietly rebelled against delegating after his promotion into his first management position. His assumption? “Delegating will turn me into the very white-collar, empty suit I swore to myself and to my family I would never become.” It took more than one coaching session for this belief to surface, and not a minute too late, either. He was able to overturn his belief system and begin to perform one of the critical functions of managing; namely, leveraging your team and developing others through delegating.

Though ultimately self-defeating, assumptions like these actually serve a purpose. They support deep-seated commitments never to experience oneself as lazy, selfish, weak, or stupid — or to suffer those judgements from others. The problem is these hidden commitments stand in direct, stark opposition to genuine, declared ones to improve in some way. Take people who set a weight-loss goal, yet at the same time hold hidden commitments to not feeling bored or to not breaking family eating traditions. The diet and exercise plan breaks down eventually (usually around March 15); any weight lost is re-gained. In the same way, a manager can will himself to delegate, read all the books, even succeed for a brief time, only to fall back to old patterns of holding onto the work.

Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have dubbed this bind “The Immunity to Change.” Their new book, “Right Weight, Right Mind” proposes an approach to weight loss using the ITC model. (It’s important to acknowledge, though, that weight loss and other health-improvement initiatives issues have in addition to a psychological component a biological one that also requires careful attention.)

Resistance to grow and adapt, as we all know from first-hand experience, arouses anxiety. Immunizing ourselves against pain, according to Kegan and Lahey, entails holding contrary commitments — the one for improvement; the other hidden — to preserve the status quo. To break free of homeostasis means actively, but safely, testing the underlying assumptions that give those hidden, competing commitments such power.

One of your jobs as a leader-coach is to support your direct reports’ growth and development. Aware that they might be in the grip of their own immune system is a good start toward unearthing and re-examining assumptions. From there, you can design some safe tests your direct report can run to find out whether behaving differently (delegating for instance) results in the imagined, dire consequence.

Most often, it does not.

What assumptions are you making that keep you from growing as a leader?



Dan Brown is a certified Immunity to Change coach. For more information, you can contact Dan here.