Why is Delegating So Hard? Keep Your Delegation Radar Open to the "Who"

Feb 09, 2020
Delegating graphic

To Delegate: a verb meaning to assign, to hand over or to entrust. I almost feel like I could end this column here. It’s so clear how this should work. To delegate is an action word. It’s a verb. Which means it only works if followed through. Otherwise, it becomes a noun – a thing. A noun does not make sense in this scenario. We have to take action. To create more room for success we have to periodically step back and scan what we’ve taken on in the past six - eight months and choose to let something go (even if it’s something you’re good at). Let’s give this a try.

 Start with answering these three questions:  

  1. Why am I delegating?
  2. What am I doing now that I’d love to assign to someone else?
  3. Who could I entrust to fulfill this role or take on this task (who would actually enjoy,  benefit or develop as a result of taking on what I’m handing over)?

Figuring out who to delegate to is where people give up too quickly. Most of our peers and direct reports aren’t raising their hand for extra assignments. I’ve rarely heard an employee say they have too much free time in their work day. You have to be clear about what you are handing over so the right person can put up their hand.

Volunteering has got to be one of the trickiest areas to figure out how and what to delegate. When we sign up to volunteer it’s usually because there is a shortage of paid resources and we end up doing whatever needs to be done. If you can figure out how to delegate in a volunteer role, I’m betting you can master this skill anywhere. Here’s how this worked for me.


One year, I signed up to help out at my children’s junior high school breakfast program. I wanted to support the school and although I’ve been on a board for national breakfast programs, donated and fundraised for them, I hadn’t actually rolled up my sleeves and done the actual ‘making breakfast’ part! My son had early band practice every Thursday so I decided to go in early with him and give it a try.

It got a little stress-y out of the gate. I was the only parent volunteer on Thursdays so it was just me trying to toast bagels when the fuses blew; my grilled cheese sandwiches (which the family studies teacher suggested as a way to use the cheese) turned out a complete disaster. But I hung in there and quickly developed a system to keep the fuses happy and stick to the food that I wasn’t going to burn. What I realized early on, though, was that I needed a backup parent for the days I couldn’t schedule work meetings around my late Thursday start.  And even though I asked clearly and often, September turned into December and still no one raised their hand for this task. I was starting to feel a bit defeated.

And then something interesting happened. Early morning band was cancelled and I brought my son with me to make breakfast. He was such a big help that I commented to the administrative staff how much more enjoyable it was to have a student helping. She paused a few moments and then said, “well, actually, we have students helping parent volunteers on other days.” My delegation radar lit up. Could I have a student volunteer too?  Well I could, they said, but all those student volunteers are in band so they aren’t available for my shift. Hmmm. Could we possibly ask for others in their morning announcements? Well, yes they could!  And guess what? I now had not one but two students signed up, showing up and eager to help out with the program. My mistake was that I was too specific in the ‘who’.  I had my delegation radar stuck on the idea that only another parent could fulfill this role. The students quickly demonstrated that they are fully capable of fulfilling breakfast program duties and if I’m not able to be there, there are teaching staff close by who can stop in and make sure the students stay on track.

Don’t give up on the ‘who’ to delegate to. It might be someone you hadn’t expected.

Karen Kelloway, BPR PCC
Your Career Story Editor


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