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When Not to Delegate


One of the accepted rules of 21st century managers is that we must delegate. Empower your troops closest to the customer to make crucial decisions. Give them the chance to show what they've got.

But I wonder if we sometimes overdo this wise advice, expecting that redirecting a job is as easy as changing the channel with a remote. Are we setting up middle managers for failure when we hold them accountable for decisions they aren't prepared to make? Are we handing off responsibilities that should stay with us? HBR blogger Whitey Johnson had similar thoughts recently, and developed three reasons you shouldn't delegate.

I'll summarize her three rules, and add one of my own.

Don't delegate when:

  1. The task has not been thought through. If you can't explain the task and the goals in concrete terms, then you have more work to do before handing it off to someone else to accomplish.
  2. You are the best person for the job. If it's something you know well and can add real value to, do it yourself.
  3. You could learn from making the decision yourself. The best learning comes from doing, so don't shortchange your own development by letting others take your place.
I think there is a fourth reason not to delegate: You can't find someone to reward. Delegating a responsibility should be considered an honor for the recipient, a time to practice what they have learned and create a real accomplishment. If no one on your team buys into the responsibility you are bestowing or has shown enough skill to deserve a chance, the job should remain on your plate.

Looking back on your own advancement, did you ever delegate a job that came back to bite you? On the flip side, did a boss give you a responsibility that became a real career-enhancer?

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(Photo by Flickr user sharonpak, CC 2.0)
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