Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Delegating Dilemmas

If I can hide out long enough....There seem to be some tremendous differences of opinion about the concept and reality of delegating and directing work–in fact, those terms are not even used in many training courses on supervision and management.  I use them in my training, because whether we talk about them or not they are concepts that allow organizations, and the people in them, to work effectively.  They are also tremendous tools for interacting in a positive way with employees. On the other hand, mishandled they have the potential for creating conflict, frustration and bad feelings.  As with most workplace issues, the problems seem to be rooted in expectations, communication and overall work relationships.

Not long ago some class participants from the same organization were discussing with me at break, the degree to which their manager passed work along to them. One person said, “Fortunately, she usually comes to our cubicles to give us something to do, and I can see her cubicle. So, the second I see her move in our direction I either go to the restroom or I act really, really frustrated over something I’m working on. I skate out of 90% of the stuff that way.”  Her coworkers looked stunned to hear what she had been doing for months! What I found ironic was that these were supervisors attending a class on supervising challenging employees!

I questioned the situation and their perspectives and they explained the situation in a bit more positive way. Nevertheless, their views about delegating or directing work were clearly skewed against the concept as they had seen it practiced, and their manager had said and done things that indicated to me she had a faulty perspective and used some ineffective methods.

The differences between delegating and directing (the semantics matter):

When a supervisor directs work to be done, it is often work that is organizationally the responsibility of the person who will do it, or is being reassigned between similar levels.

  • “Shawn, we got ten new files today and I’ll get those to you.”
  • “Beth, I just found out you’ll need to have the audit done by June this year. Let’s meet to plan that.”
  • “Bill, drive by this address today and check it to see if there are any building code violations.”   
  • “Ron and Pat, I’m moving some tasks around between you two.”

When a supervisor delegates work to be done, it is most often work that could appropriately be done by the supervisor, but it is also appropriate–and perhaps even preferable–for an employee to do it.

  • “Shawn, I’d like you to start keeping the spreadsheet on completed files. I’ll show you how it’s done.”
  • “Beth, from now on I’d like you to represent us on the Audit Team, since you are the one directly involved in it.”
  • “Bill, I have a bunch of letters to get out to various contractors, but I can’t get them done this week. I’m going to get some of them to you and I’d appreciate your help getting them handled.”
  • “Ron and Pat, starting with this upcoming staff meeting, I’m going to have you two be in charge of arranging them.”

Delegating work becomes problematic when:

  • Employees have knowledge or opinions about what supervisors should or could be doing on their own, and they resent or resist doing work they believe to be outside their job descriptions.
  • A busy employee is given delegated work by a supervisor and the supervisor seems to do little work of his own.
  • Supervisors delegate work but do not train about it.
  • Supervisors delegate work but do not feel comfortable giving it up, so they provide excessive instructions.
  • Supervisors only delegate unpleasant tasks but not interesting and challenging tasks.
  • Supervisors do not often delegate, so when they do it is less accepted than if it was a regular practice.
  • Supervisors do not often delegate and employees do not have the opportunity to gain higher-level skills.
  • The same few people are given extra work repeatedly, because they are usually pleasant about it.
  • Workplace communications and relationships are so problematic that negative reactions to delegation of work are based primarily on negative feelings in general.

Work that should not be delegated:

  • Oversight of other employees, except as part of a clearly defined and limited team role.
  • Tasks that a supervisor is expected to handle personally, either because of organizational culture or the expectations of the manager.
  • When errors could have severe repercussions and the supervisor is more appropriate for doing the task.
  • Relationship roles with other units or organizations when it is important for the supervisor or manager to be the liaison.
  • Work that will require more training than there is time is available to provide it. Do not put employees in a sink or swim situation with an important task.

One tried and true way to know what things you might delegate is to ask yourself this: If you were gone for many months, what work would have to be given to someone of your organizational level and what work could the organization parcel out to those you supervise?

April 16th, 2008 Posted by | Supervision and Management | 8 comments


  1. My own manager tends to unload a lot of work on me, but he stays really busy himself and he’s always good about thanking me and giving me credit if it’s that kind of work. I think of it as a real vote of confidence, but sometimes I get frustrated with having more and more to do.

    I’ve had my employees give me sympathy about how much work gets “dumped” on me, but I think I’ll start putting a better spin on it, so they don’t think of me delegating work to them as “dumping” on them too!

    I just realized as I read this article that some of the things I am delegated by my manager I could delegate down and it would be just fine and still not be putting too much work on people. I’ve always worried that my manager would think I had just rolled the work downhill, but I don’t think he would care at all. Good ideas. P.H.

    Comment by P.A.H. | April 16, 2008

  2. Hi! Yes, I think you are very wise to let employees think of yourself as willing to do additional work. Be an example.

    I would suggest, if you have any question at all, that you ask your manager if it would be appropriate for you to delegate a specific task. When you do delegate work that was delegated to you, and if you send a thank you note, cc your manager so he or she knows who was involved. Actually, that’s a good idea anytime!

    Thanks for the comment! T.

    Comment by Tina | April 16, 2008

  3. This is really useful for me right now. I asked someone to start keeping a log the supervisor has always kept and the employee wrote a complaint letter about wanting to be paid more if she was doing supervisory work. My boss told me I was fine and had the authority to delegate, but I felt like I had done something wrong for her to react that way. I realize now that the assignment was just something she could use to be upset about. I was getting ready to take it back, but I won’t now!

    When I was a new employee I would never have thought to complain about doing anything I was asked to do. And this employee is supposedly a mature woman, so I can’t say it’s the younger generation!

    Comment by CSP103 | April 17, 2008

  4. CSP 103, you are right to not take back the work you delegated. However, I do think you should not let this go without communicating more about it.

    You didn’t say if you had talked to her about it and why you delegated it–or clarified that you had the authority to delegate it. But, I really do believe that is effective brief training in an organization.

    Then, you could remind her that “other work as assigned” applies in your office. If you have some area of your evaluation that reflects this type of situation you can also remind her that her response to work assignments is part of her evaluation, that is why you want her to be more accepting of appropriate work assignments.

    As I said, you may have already talked to her, but if not, I think you should–as unpleasant as it may be–to ensure that you don’t go through this the next time you delegate something to her. Good luck!

    Comment by Tina | April 17, 2008

  5. I work in a medical office and my supervisor pretty much has it worked out where she does nothing except evaluate the rest of us and she says she is a good delegator. Her work area is neat all the time and she produces a family newsletter, sells on ebay, and other things, while we do everything else. That doesn’t seem right to me, because none of us are making the money she does. I looked at her job description, which includes all things the four of us do. Do you think that is too much delegation and should we say anything about it?

    Comment by Kristen | April 17, 2008

  6. Kristen, there are a lot of things to consider in your situation: The culture of the workplace, the relationship of your supervisor to the person over her, and the overall workload.

    Your supervisor may be doing everything she is doing with the blessings of her boss. It may be there is an understanding that she is ultimately responsible for some tasks but they will be given to others to do. Or, she may be putting one over on her boss about the work she does. (One way to know that is if your supervisor hides her activities from her boss.)

    If you like your job and can do the tasks, you may find you will simply have to adjust to having a supervisor who doesn’t set a very good example! If the supervisor’s activities really seem inappropriate and you think you must say something, you may want to gain the support of every employee rather than dealing with this on your own.

    Best wishes!

    Comment by Tina | April 17, 2008

  7. This is an excellent site for a very useful mix of material for supervisors and managers. I like the overall look and functionality and think you have done a masterful job of making it feel learner-centered. I will confess I was surprised at your professional background, but I can see how it all comes together very well in this product. I’ll be a regular reader. Best of luck! Bill Warren

    Comment by W. R. Warren | April 18, 2008

  8. Thank you Bill! Please comment often and I hope you’ll find many things to be useful and/or enjoyable! Tina

    Comment by Tina | April 19, 2008

Leave a comment