Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Times You Shouldn't Delegate (and 3 You Really Should)

“Non-delegator” sounds so much nicer than “control freak” or “know-it-all,” but truth be told, that’s just semantics. Delegating can be scary—especially if you’ve been burned before and if you know exactly how you like things done—but I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s a crucial part of moving up the ladder.

That said, that instinct to hold some projects close to the vest isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes you really should keep a project on your own plate. The trick is knowing when you should pass a task along (hint: the correct answers go way beyond when you’re too swamped to care how it’s done) and to whom.

So, take a deep breath, have faith that your colleagues and employees are capable of doing a great job, too, and use the guide below to discern if you’re keeping a project because it’s the sensible (rather than territorial) choice.

1. Keep the Project When: It Must Be Done a Specific Way

But Delegate If: There is More Than One Right Way

One of the classic excuses for not delegating is the old stand-by: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” And in some situations—a relationship with a difficult client, executing a project you masterminded—this may be true. Often, however, a slight deviation from your plan won’t affect the final product, and the time saved and spirit of teamwork built through delegating is worth this risk.

For example, in a prior job, hundreds of student applications containing multiple pieces were sent in hours before deadline. Did I have an ordered system of which pieces I filed first, and how I ordered them in the student’s chart? Yes. But realistically, as long as every piece was recorded as received in the database, and every student had a digital and hard copy application, it didn’t matter if items were scanned first and recorded second or vice-versa.

This was 100% a task to be delegated to my very capable interns, even if they had their own way of doing things. In fact, the only time there was a breakdown in communication was when I put the focus on doing it “my way” (record first, scan and print second), rather than on what mattered most (everything must be accounted for).

Remember, it’s okay if doing a task intuitively means something different to someone else. Who knows, his or her innovation may even teach you something!

2. Keep the Project When: It Takes Longer to Explain Than to Complete

But Delegate If: It’s a Skill the Employee Needs to Learn

Okay, it can be a total nuisance to walk someone through something that is already second nature to you. You teach her the operating program, show her the keyboard shortcuts, and the next thing you know your 30-minute email project has turned into a two-hour training session. So if you’re too busy to teach today? Send the email yourself.

Unless—you make that excuse every day.

Yes, teaching someone takes time and patience. But once your employee learns, he or she can then complete the task, taking it off your plate altogether. Don’t hoard your subordinate’s responsibilities because you can’t find the time to show him or her—giving your employees meaningful work is equally a part of your job!

Unless it’s a truly a special exception (such as the day of a big event), take a “no time like the present” approach. And remember, the better job you do explaining this time, the fewer questions you’ll have to answer in future.

3. Keep the Project When: You Really Enjoy It

But Delegate If: It’s No Longer in Your Job Description

If you take your work personally, giving up a task you loved can be your biggest obstacle to delegating. And it’s not an uncommon problem for the recently promoted. Say you were promoted from an entry-level admin position to a different department, so you no longer get to greet your favorite people. Or perhaps you’re asked to train someone else on a current (pet) project, so you can focus on one that’s deemed more important to the company.

Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do: You shouldn’t lurk around the old task or over the shoulder of the person who now has your responsibilities. You shouldn’t “just happen” to be at the front desk whenever the regulars come in, or drop by project meetings unannounced. It’s not helpful—and it can get annoying, quickly.

That said, here’s what you can do: First, offer to be a resource. Tell the new hire that you loved this project or that you planned that event the last five years running and are happy to answer any questions. Second, try to identify what you enjoyed so much in that role and look for similar outlets in your new role.

Finally, if you love your current job, and a promotion would mean a total 180 in your role (e.g., your work is 90% hands-on—a promotion means it would be 90% paperwork), think about if you really want to delegate your current responsibilities. I once turned a promotion down, and though it cost me a title bump and a few thousand dollars, it was well worth it for a second year doing exactly what I loved.

Delegating is not a bad word. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it all yourself; it means you’re a strong enough manager that you can identify projects that would be good for others on your team. Use the tips above to remind yourself when you should be assigning more tasks to your employees.

Photo of man with paper courtesy of Shutterstock.