In my work with middle and senior managers, I often come across a reluctance to delegate. My clients are usually aware of this issue and can’t understand their resistance. They are all too aware of the adverse effects arising from non-delegation but feel powerless to change their ways. 

While there are many potential reasons for this issue, the following four reasons appear most frequently in my work:

‘I must show value’ 

Managers sometimes undervalue their contribution to a team and the broader organisation. They might assume that managing and leadership tasks are not as important as ‘doing things’. They believe that other staff perform tasks of more obvious tangible value. By holding on to specific tasks, they can try and prove to themselves and the organisation that they have value over and above chairing meetings or developing team culture. 

‘I sense the glare of evaluation’

I often work with socially anxious people in my clinical work. This problem manifests as a diagnosable condition in more severe cases. Many people in the workplace (and in life) experience a less severe, but still unhelpful dose of this problem. The fear of negative evaluation by others often drives this anxiety. Managers in this situation may be reluctant to delegate through fear that it will lead to criticism: ‘He’s passing off his responsibilities’, ‘She’s treating me unfairly’ and so on. 

‘I predict a disaster’

A tendency to predict extreme adverse outcomes or events is known as ‘catastrophising’. A botched presentation being ‘a bit embarrassing’ becomes ‘the end of my career’. Some managers (perhaps unconsciously) take responsibility for tasks in an attempt to avert disaster. Often this catastrophic outcome is unspecified, and there is a non-specific sense of dread that blocks appropriate delegation. The ironic consequences are often impaired performance, more stress, and increased risk of errors.       

‘I need to look out for my team’

Concerned about staff welfare and preventing an excessive workload burden, some managers will hold on to tasks rather than distributing them amongst staff. However, unintended negative consequences can result from this strategy. One is that the overloaded manager sends mixed messages about well-being (‘I don’t look after myself, but you should’). Another implication is that staff might lack sufficient challenges or opportunities for professional development. 

What can I do?

The above list is not exhaustive but captures some important psychological drivers of delegation reluctance. The way to intervene with these issues will differ from person to person, but here are some general suggestions:

  • Identify assumptions behind lack of delegation. You can think of the above categories as capturing a set of unhelpful assumptions. We can do little about them if they remain undetected. Certain questions may help reveal these problematic assumptions: What problems am I trying to prevent by holding on to tasks? What is the worst-case scenario if I delegate more? What ‘unofficial’ evaluation am I subject to by colleagues? Revealing assumptions directly related to a lack of delegation provides a roadmap for addressing this issue.
  • Challenge these assumptions directly. Asking for evidence in support of these assumptions is often a good start: What evidence do I have that I am failing to show value? What evidence do I have that I am negatively evaluated? What evidence do I have that disaster will strike if I delegate more often? What evidence do I have that my team needs ‘protecting’?
  • Seek an alternative perspective to break free from narrow views: What is another way to look at this situation (e.g., that staff need me to look after them in this way)? Is this assumption helpful for my performance and well-being? What would I say to a colleague who held this assumption? What are the pros and cons of holding this assumption? 
  • Test out your assumptions by looking for past examples that challenge your thinking. For instance, you could consider positive feedback received.
  • Run a small experiment. If you are worried that increased delegation will lead to a negative outcome, record your feared prediction, then test it out. Delegate a small number of tasks, then evaluate the result (e.g., seek feedback from staff). Compare the result to your feared prediction. What did you learn from this experiment? Does this reveal positive changes that could be made to your managerial practice? 

There are many other ways to address delegation reluctance. You may get some benefit from the above suggestions but remember that this issue may be tricky to shift. Seeking extra support may be an entirely appropriate strategy to get you moving in a more helpful direction.