My friend often complains that he feels overworked and underappreciated in his career. He does have a somewhat stressful-sounding job–at his company, he supervises a team of tech support people who are constantly barraged with emergency computer issues. But from what he’s told me, I think at least some of the problem results from his own anxieties.
Although he has four people under him, he fields most of the support calls himself. He does this, he says, because he’s worried that his team isn’t experienced enough to handle the calls properly. Unfortunately, because he doesn’t like to delegate tasks, his team isn’t building up the experience he wants them to have, and he’s stuck bearing most of the workload.
I’ve found this is a common reason why people feel overwhelmed and frustrated in their jobs. Many people I’ve spoken with realize, and have been told, that they could achieve a lot more efficiency and peace of mind by doing more delegation, but somehow they still can’t bring themselves to do it. For others, it doesn’t even occur to them to share their work, and they’re left wondering why they seem to constantly log the most hours in the office.
In working with people with anxiety about delegation, there are two common reasons I’ve found for why they have trouble entrusting work to someone else. The first one is guilt. Some people fear delegation because they get the nagging feeling that they’d be imposing on others by asking them to do more work. This may stem simply from anxiety about making others’ lives difficult, or a worry that others will become resentful and blaming when given a task.
Others, like my friend, are afraid things will fall apart if they don’t stay in control. They worry that others will shirk their duties or come back with endless questions, or won’t do their assignments properly.
The first thing I tend to ask people when they harbor this kind of anxiety is whether they notice it in other areas of their lives, and the answer is usually yes. People who feel guilty asking colleagues to do things, for example, may also have trouble “burdening” their spouses and children with tasks around the house. People who fear that their colleagues won’t handle their assignments well might avoid taking their cars to the mechanic, thinking they’d be better off handling the repairs themselves. In short, the problem isn’t that their jobs are difficult, their colleagues are uncooperative, or that they don’t have enough resources available to them at work–the problem lies in their own way of thinking.
The second thing I try to learn from people who suffer from “delegation anxiety” is what they’re really afraid of. They may say they’re afraid others will resent them for delegating work, or that the work won’t get done properly. But if this were all they were concerned about, it’s unlikely that the idea of delegation would upset them so much.
After all, even if others didn’t like being assigned more work, their momentary resentment wouldn’t be the end of the world. And if people don’t do their work properly, you can correct their mistakes, or at least help them understand how to do the job better next time. The paralysis people feel around asking for others’ help often has deeper roots.
When people give serious thought to why delegation seems so scary, they sometimes recall situations earlier in their lives where asking for or needing others’ help was actually dangerous to them. One woman who had trouble giving her employees assignments, for instance, told me she grew up with drug-addicted parents. Because her parents had enough trouble taking care of their own needs, she said, she couldn’t rely on them for support–she had to meet most of her needs by herself. It was no surprise that the idea of relying on others in her business life felt unsafe–doing that actually was unsafe when she was a child.
In his insightful book Chained To The Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners And Children, And The Clinicians Who Treat Them, psychologist Bryan E. Robinson describes how people who fear delegation are often motivated by events that happened long before they entered the working world:
Work addiction develops most frequently in kids who get a roller-coaster ride through childhood, rather than in those whose bounces and jostles are buttressed by steady parental hands. . . . Workaholics kids grow into adults who believe that they cannot count on anyone else and that their very emotional, financial and physical survival requires them to do everything themselves. . . . Workaholics are damaged by these traits because their refusal to ask for help and their inability to delegate put them at risk for burnout.
Understanding what really motivates their fear of giving work to others helps people put the fear in perspective. When they see that something that happened long ago, not their work environments or any other aspect of their current lives, is responsible for their worries about delegation, asking for others’ help begins to sound less frightening.
This realization frees them up to explore new possibilities at work. Maybe they can try assigning a task to someone else, just as an experiment, and see what happens. Maybe allowing their subordinates to develop skills and experience is worth the occasional risk of a mistake. This awareness helps them reclaim some of their free time, and maybe even some of their enjoyment of what they do.
(This article was posted in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/twelfth-edition-carnival-improving-life.)