Episode 99: Hate to Delegate

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…a lot of women don’t feel comfortable delegating. And there may be good reason for that.

“We’re also taught that we’re supposed to do it all and we’re not supposed to ask for help and we’re supposed to be perfect in all that we do…but what ends up happening is then when we delegate we don’t feel right because we’re letting somebody else do it.”

But a desire to control the outcome can also play a part…

“The struggle is not wanting to…I think it’s the assumption that we can take control of things that are not remotely within our control.”

Coming up, why some of us shy away from delegation, and how to master it. 

I was doing an interview a few months ago and I asked my guest why she thought few women in Sweden had top jobs in the private sector, despite the country’s egalitarian outlook and all the effort it’s made to ease life for working parents. And one thing she said was, well, I’ve noticed women aren’t that good at delegating. And when you don’t delegate you don’t have time to focus on more of the big stuff – and the less obvious, network-y kind of stuff – that helps your career.

That delegation question is something I’ve thought about too. I have been a reluctant delegator in the past. I’ve caught myself thinking, time and again, oh, I’ll just do that because it’s easier – it’s easier if I do it. I’ll do it better. But what that means is spending a lot of time on stuff that’s fairly routine and could be outsourced.

I sat down recently with Rachael Ellison to talk about this. She was a guest on a past show I did about work and motherhood. She is a coach and consultant and she works a lot with new parents – mostly women – going back to demanding jobs after their leave ends. She’s also a partner at the Center for Parental Leave Leadership.

AM-T: “What’s your impression of how comfortable the women you work with are with delegation?”

“They’re not. They’re very uncomfortable with delegation and I think there’s a sense of wanting to do your best in every sphere of your life and wanting to control that outcome and delegation obviously takes away from your ability to control the outcome. You see it with parenting, you see it in the workplace. But I think most of the people I’ve worked with are quite uncomfortable with delegation.”

Again I’ve often noted my own desire to control and I’ve noted it a lot in other women – whether it’s to do with their kids or their work, they want to put that finishing touch on whatever it is themselves. They don’t want to delegate it. We talked about why this is – maybe women feel if we don’t control the final outcome, it’ll reflect badly on us?

“I always hear…this sense that, what I hear from new parents is I need to give 150% at work and 150% at home. So that feeling of needing to go over and above and show that veneer of perfection. And you can’t do that if someone else - theoretically it’s harder to do that if someone else is taking some of that job from you. I think that’s what people are feeling. And on the home front there are pressures around motherhood and the image around motherhood and being a perfect mom that we’re struggling with. And we don’t want to relinquish that role even if we don’t…you know, I find it’s very hard for moms that I work with to – and again it’s this one particular area - to relinquish control to dads. They kind of assume that, you know, there’s this stereotype that if you have dad make the lunches instead of you make the lunches rather it’s gonna be thrown together pieces of bread with maybe one piece of protein in there. But if you make the lunches it’s gonna be beautiful, it’s gonna be a balanced meal…”

AM-T: “Yeah, I want to talk to you about the part home plays in this – I think there’s overlap between home delegation and work delegation. But the lack of home delegation affects your work greatly, or can do. This has come up a few times on my show and the example the woman has given has been a home arena, where they’ve found it hard to relinquish control of that thing whether it’s lunches or choosing an accessory for the home that they outsourced to their husband. It was tough for them to do that. Now I’m assuming this is because the home has traditionally been our arena. And so many of us still find it hard to say, ‘no, you do that.’ is that where it comes from do you think?”

“I think that is partially where it comes from but also we’re not doing it in a vacuum, right? There is the other side. How do men, how do they assume the role they’re given when it’s delegated? There’s an interesting study that came out of the Families and Work Institute a couple of years ago looking at heterosexual versus homosexual couples and the division of labor and responsibility there. And basically…and I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the data top of mind, but the issues around delegation and division of responsibilities were essentially not there in homosexual couples. There were no roles that we’re assuming we’re supposed to take. So I think in heterosexual couples, men and women, they are assuming their roles – the woman maybe feels it’s her role to be in charge of the home sphere. And similarly the male is feeling like, that wasn’t really my job. I don’t know how to assume it. So on both sides I think there’s hesitation there.”

She tells the story of one heterosexual client she had who was trying to exert control both at work and at home. At work there was a tricky management transition going on. And at home, she was frazzled trying to potty train her toddler…

“She was just, really didn’t want to let go of the management transition and what she felt like she needed to do to make things go smoothly, and also was really struggling with this potty training on the home front and would not let go of that…would not let go of being really strict about it, felt like her husband wasn’t stepping in the way he needed to, felt her staff wasn’t stepping in the way they needed to at work and just wouldn’t let go. She really did have a moment of saying I can’t – I have to have a different approach to both these things and recognize what in this situation I can control and what I can’t. And potty training is not something that is very easy to control. You can set routines but there is a certain level of letting go and letting it happen, and the same is true with management. [Laughs…] so you have to let it play out.”

AM-T: “What happened?”

“She took a step back. She did some reflecting and she said I’m not gonna put so much pressure on my son to be potty trained at the pace I want him to be, he doesn’t have to be, I’m gonna let my husband take more of a role with this.  And in terms of the management transition, these are the pieces that are most important to me and the rest is gonna have to play out the way it’s gonna play out. There’s nothing I can do.

I think a lot of times the struggle is…it’s the assumption we can take control of things that are not remotely within our control – they’re not controllable! But that’s where we run into the most trouble is when we…you know, I was talking about the 150% at work and the 150% at home. There’s a math problem there. There’s a kind of logic problem we have. It’s just not possible to control both spheres the way we want to…it requires letting go…and I think it’s about choosing which parts you want to let go of.”

I bet a lot of you can relate.

You’ll hear from Rachael again in a mini show I’m releasing next week – in that we’re focusing specifically on parental leave and how delegation can help with a successful leave. So if you’re a manager or someone who’s likely to go out on leave – or both – tune in for that.

Jodi Detjen is also a past guest. She’s a professor of management at Suffolk University in Boston. She’s also a partner at Orange Grove Consulting – it’s a firm that works with companies to get more women into leadership.

When we spoke there was some overlap with what Rachael and I talked about. But Jodi has her own take on this topic.

AM-T: “It’s come up in past conversations I’ve had with guests, the idea that women don’t delegate as much as men or don’t like to, and thus more of their time is tied up on the smaller stuff they could give to somebody else – what do you think, it this true, what’s been your experience of women and delegation?”

“So we found the same thing in our research and our work with women, and what we found is that women and girls, it’s reinforced and reinforced across their lives about getting stuff done. "Oh, you are so good at that." "Oh my gosh, look how hard you are working." And you see this consistently. And so what ends up happening is that women believe that they are not very good at delegation. So what ends up happening, for example, think about men. Men are entitled to support. So they think--"alright, the women are going to clean the office's dishes. I don't have to worry about that." Or they believe that their work is valuable so they are much more ready to spend money to make their life more efficient. So for example, men will have no problem getting their shirts cleaned, whereas women will wash them and iron them themselves. They will also feign incompetence in support tasks. "Oh, I can't take notes. I am an awful writer and you are so good at it." And that just triggers women who have been told they are so good at these things—these small things. It just triggers them to want to do it more. And so men have learned that they are supposed to get support. And that this is their God-given right. And women have been taught quite the opposite.”

Not to generalize too much about men, but as I listened a portrait of myself was emerging pretty fast. Take the pride many of us have in being self-sufficient…

“…if you look at the data – girls outperform boys in school across the ages, so through college. But we are also taught we are supposed to do it all. And we are not supposed to ask for help and we are supposed to be, you know perfect in all that we do. And if we ask for help, that's selfish. But when ends up happening is that when we delegate, we don't feel right because we are sort of letting someone else do it, and it feels really uncomfortable to us. So when we’ve been working with women, you'll be surprised at how many women refuse to delegate housecleaning even when they can amply afford it. Affording is not a problem. They just don't want to do it because, you know, the cleaners won't do it as well as they will. Men, no problem at all.”

AM-T: “I think I’m gonna book a cleaner as soon as we get off the phone.”

 “I have done this back when I was living in London. My husband said, "We are spending too much money on the cleaner." So I said, "Let's try cleaning in it ourselves." And so we had our list, and he didn't do his list, and I said, "That's it. We are hiring the cleaner back." And we have had a cleaner ever since.”

AM-T: ‘I would love to hire a cleaner so I think you’ve just galvanized me. But what you said about men expecting to receive support was so interesting. Because in all my thinking about this topic I’ve never thought about that.”

“Yeah, so they are raised to believe that it's okay to get support, and women are raised to believe that they are the ones who have to give support. I'll give you an example. So a couple of years ago, I had a male student tell me--this was at the end of the semester. He had a team of all young men. He said, "You know, we did poorly because we didn't have a young woman on our team to organize us." And I liked looked at him and I almost exploded. And the more I look at this, I see this again and again and again. And of course, what ends up happening is that the men get all the glory jobs, the glamor. They are the ones who are up in front doing all the work. You know, looking like they are doing all the work and the women are in the back organizing it. This is undergrad, so it's not changing. These are 21-year-olds!”

In her house delegation is a way of life – her two sons have been doing their own laundry since they were 13.

But let’s consider the idea that, again, women don’t actually like to delegate – whether or not they’re expected to do everything, they want to do it. Jodi tells the story of one woman she and her consulting colleagues worked with.

“She was a relatively new manager. She was probably managing for about a year. And she was really uncomfortable with delegation. So she would delegate it to her people, and the minute they came back with a problem for her, she would just be like "Okay, just give it to me," and she would take it over. So what ended up happening was and the problem she was having, she would be working later and later and later because she was doing her work and their work. And they were leaving earlier and earlier and not getting much to do. And the other thing that was happening was that they were starting to think that she didn't trust them. That they were incapable. So she was sending them a really clear message that they didn't have the capability to get the work done. That only she could. So we had to work with her, on really thinking about what is it that could happen? What's the worst thing that could happen if you could delegate to them? What if you look at it as an opportunity to develop them? To build their skills so you have a stronger team? So she worked on it over a six month period, and at the end of it, she was going home a much more reasonable time. She had a stronger team. She had a more capable team. And she wasn't doing their work anymore. But she had to get over that hump, that initial hump – she really believed they were incapable, and they knew it.”

I had an experience like those employees once, years ago. I was hired by a company in an associate role, to help out my new boss, who was overwhelmed. But my boss – even though she had asked for the help, she had persuaded the company to create this position – she just would not delegate. So I was incredibly bored, a, and b, I felt like she didn’t trust me to do the work. It was really dispiriting. And I wondered why I’d been hired in the first place if she was just gonna keep doing everything she’d done before. Finally I talked another executive into giving me some other writing work to keep me busy, and that ultimately led to me becoming a journalist a couple of years later.

Jodi says the ability to delegate is vital if you want to rise through the ranks. 

“It's the difference between a junior and a mid to senior level manager. Because the ones who don't make it to the top are the ones who can't delegate. Because there is absolutely no way you could be in a senior level management position without delegating. You just cannot do your people's work as well as your work. It's just not possible.”

AM-T: “Well talk a little more about that because as you know, the idea for a show on delegating came from one of my listeners who’s also been a colleague of mine and she said she’s getting better at delegating at work. But she pointed out that often means letting people make mistakes, and some people would say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ So how do you start to become a delegator if traditionally you haven’t been much of a delegator?”

“Well, I think the problem is that people get scared of the process itself. Initially the process is a learning process, so you have to teach people, they have to learn how to do it. And you're right. They have to learn how to do it. And you're right. There's mistakes. And that's just the nature of the beast. You know, if I hand something to a junior person for the first time, what I get back is not what I want. It's not. It's going to take me three to 10 times longer the first time, but you have to look long-term. I have to think "Okay, this person is going to be with me for several years, and I am going to invest this time now because in three months, I don't want to be doing it.” If they haven't learned it in three months, then I haven't hired well. I don't have the right person to delegate to. So part of the process is who is it I am delegating to? Do they have the basic essential skills to start with so that they can learn from there? And that's not always the case. But I'll give you an example. We had an assistant here 10 years ago. And at first, she was absolutely awful. She was just one of the least capable people I have ever met, but she was perfectly capable of learning it. And so we all took the time, and we taught her every little aspect of what we needed. And it probably took her three months because she was a quick learner. And then she became one of the most capable people in that position that I've ever met. And she got promoted within a couple of years, because she was so competent. We trusted her and she learned. Now, there's two pieces to that puzzle. You gotta have the trust and then you gotta have the person who is willing to learn. And then you don't have both of those things, but both of those things are managerial challenges, right. If you don't trust, there's a problem with who've you hired, and if they are not capable, then there's a problem with who've you hired. So all roads lead back to us.”

But she says once you start…

“Delegation is addictive. I delegate everything. So I delegate to my kids. I delegate to my husband. I delegate to my graduate assistant. I delegate to people who work for my company. I delegate to my teams at Suffolk. I delegate to everything. So the first thing that happens to me – the first time I get a question, I ask myself, ‘Who is the best person to do this task?’”

And sometimes it is her. But often someone else can do it.

One thing that drives Jodi nuts is a particular belief people seem to have about women – including women. It’s become a cliché.

 “Women are so good at multitasking. So this is a trigger word, right? We are told that we are just so good, and we are so efficient at getting a lot done. We have to do it all. And so when we delegate, of course we are not doing it all. Somebody else is. We are giving it to somebody else to do. And when people tell us that we are great multitaskers, what they are basically saying is, "Keep at it. You keep doing everything. We aren't great at getting things done." And it keeps reinforcing this same exact bias. - And we internalize it as a rule. And so when people tell me I am a great multitasker, I say "Actually, I don't multitask." And then I just stop. And they don't know what to say. And they get really uncomfortable. But I am just like "Multitasking is not actually physically possible. When you look at brain research, people don't multitask. There are actually costs to multitasking because every time you switch tasks, there's a pause in your brain, and it's like a microsecond, but it adds up. So multitasking is actually quite inefficient.”

But punting, as she calls it, now that is efficient…

“When we learn to punt, we actually learn how to let go of control. So punting is basically saying you're dropping it, you are saying, "not my responsibility." And there's actually a method to doing it that we've discovered. And the first one is, you just stop doing it. So for example, there was this one woman whose team was responsible for monthly reports. So she decided to do an experiment and didn’t do half the reports one month just to see what was happening. And you can imagine what happened. Nothing. So she was just relieved of the majority of those reports nobody even looked at. They didn't miss. So she just relieved herself of a ton of work that opened her up for a lot more strategic work. So another one is a lot of people punt on their emails. They look at their emails and they’ll only respond if it’s urgent. The rest of it they just punt and the whole idea is if it's that important, it will come back again. And men and women do this. It's fantastic. The third one is that you can ask for help and this one, everybody always talks about how men don't ask for directions, but women don't ask for help. So for example, a big presentation that we have to do next week.  Each piece of the presentation has been given to my team so the team together is creating the whole thing, not one person. And then the delegation piece. So as we learn to punt, to prioritize what really needs to happen here and actually, most stuff, you'd be amazed of how you can get away with subpar, and when I mean subpar, I mean subpar compared to perfection, not subpar compared to expectations. Because you can meet expectations and our expectations of perfection are not really what the other person’s expecting. They are expecting it just to be done.”

You can listen to the early show I did with Jodi for more on women and perfection – that one’s called Killing the Ideal Woman.

And she says it’s not just people like her with teams who can delegate. A lot of entrepreneurs hire virtual assistants or if you’re like me you sometimes hire an intern to help out with research and transcribing interview tape – Zaynab Ubaid transcribed most of my interview with Jodi and she found me an academic study on women and delegation.

Jodi says one woman she worked with was hired to do social media for her company but the company had a tiny budget, she was the sole person in this role. She ended up asking her friends all over the different departments to find interesting stuff to post, and it worked out really well. She was doing her job but she had lots of unofficial helpers.

Jodi says the problem is it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the outset. To think, ugh – how can I delegate this beast? I’d better just do it myself.


“And all you have to do is just break it down into smaller pieces and then figure out which aspects can be delegated. And you know what? It's a 21st century leadership skill. You learn how to do that, you can do a lot of stuff.”

Jodi Detjen.

As ever I’m curious to know what you think. Has your career rocketed since you began to delegate? Do you find it hard to give up control? You can comment under this episode at The Broad Experience.com or on the Facebook page or you tweet me at @ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen.

And I mentioned this earlier but I’ll be bringing out a mini show in about a week. In that show Rachael Ellison talks specifically about parental leave and the role delegation can play in having a successful leave and re-entry.

If you can kick in a few bucks, or pounds, or anything else to support the show, that would be great. Any amount is gratefully received – you can go to paypal.me/TheBroadExperience.

I will see you next week for that mini show. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.