Tyro Tracts

The Difficulty of Delegating

Faculty members with long to-do lists need to think about when and how to trust others with key tasks, writes Nate Kreuter.

April 21, 2014
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I’m going to go way out on a limb and speculate that many of us in academe are bad delegators, perhaps not able to delegate responsibilities to others at all, or perhaps operating as micromanagers at those times when we do go ahead and delegate responsibilities to others. Delegation, the how and when of divvying up work among multiple people, is an important skill, one that’s difficult to teach, difficult to learn, and entirely necessary within the structure of the modern academy.

One of the places where delegation skills, I suspect, are healthiest might be in experimental labs, where the lab simply cannot function with only one person running it. Those most responsible for such labs by necessity develop delegation skills. I’m not sure whether those skills translate outside the lab, when professorial faculty are working with peers, rather than students under their tutelage. At any rate, I think we would be well-served to reflect upon how we parcel out work among our colleagues, where relationships are not often hierarchical, and “orders” do not go over well at all.

In the lore of virtually every academic department there are tales of infamous department chairs and program directors who burned out because they couldn’t bring themselves to, or didn’t realize that they could, distribute out some of the work. Or, there may be tales of a once-popular faculty members who, with increased responsibilities, became overbearing managers, nitpicking even the simplest tasks that had been, ostensibly, entrusted to fellow faculty members. If you have any administrative duties (and you will someday if you don’t yet), you’re going to need to know how to carefully and appropriately delegate work to others.

As I’ve argued before, many of the skills that make us good at scholarly and teaching endeavors might actually work counter to our, I hope, additional goal of functioning as helpful, reliable colleagues. Scholarship and teaching are both endeavors that reward careful, meticulous attention to detail. Those of us used to working in such a way may at times, it stands to reason, have difficulty giving up control even when it is appropriate to do so. The issue of whether or not you’re good at delegating tasks and responsibilities to others is frequently an issue of control. Those of us who dislike delegating or are afraid to do it often fear losing control over the task at hand. We begin by seeing our work as important. We continue by worrying that a task we delegate to another will go uncompleted, or poorly completed.

Sometimes our instincts might be right — that person may very well do an unacceptably poor job of handling the task that you delegate, effectively generating even more work for you as you pick up the pieces and fix what went wrong, or what went entirely undone. At other times, though, our unwillingness to delegate is less justified, and is far more about our own inability to trust others with work that we consider important, even when we know those other people to be generally competent and reliable.

While some of us have a hard time delegating tasks at all, others of us do delegate, but then undermine the entire point of delegation by micromanaging. A perhaps illustrative example comes from my spare time, and what little of that spare time I have I devote to refereeing collegiate men’s lacrosse during the spring months. I recently worked a game involving a team with a very vocal coach, who, from opening whistle to final horn, shouted unbelievably specific instructions to his players. He tried to dictate which direction they cut or rolled during active plays. Actions that should be undertaken out of instinct and muscle memory were instead coached from the sideline. Instead of relying on their intuition and experience, the players, virtually all of them, hesitated on the field, caught between their own instincts and the overly-specific instructions that the coach was shouting. His attempt to micromanage every element of every play, with his impressively booming and long-lasting voice, crippled his players, with predictably disastrous results for his team.

In short, he didn’t appear to trust his own players to simply play the game, didn’t trust them with the roles delegated to each by virtue of their positions on the team and field. Those of us observing the game from a more neutral perspective were easily able to see that the coach’s micromanaging of his players on the field was encumbering them, and working counter to his and the players’ goal of winning the game.

I’m wary of pushing the sports metaphor too far here, but the anecdote illustrates how, when we try to maintain too much control, instead of trusting others to carry out their work or proper role, we undermine the larger purposes toward which we think we’re working. In an academic environment, the committee chair who unreasonably revises or reworks the contributions of committee members fails to draw in those members’ experience and expertise, and simply redoes all of the work alone. The program director who solicits help with a curriculum revision, but then dictates the minutiae of how to undertake the work. In both cases, we have also made those we work with disinclined to contribute their help in the future, and certainly defeat the purpose of delegation, which is to distribute large tasks amongst a team of people, making the work more manageable for everyone.

I know that I am a micromanager. I absolutely abhor delegating responsibilities to others, even when it may be that other person’s very job to handle the tasks that I delegate, or simply to share responsibilities which I am, for better or worse, more inclined to carry solely on my own shoulders. I resist delegating at all, and when I do, I have a tendency to henpeck the poor person who’s helping me out. Recent additions to my own administrative duties, however, have begun teaching me how and why to delegate. Mostly out of necessity.

The structure of academic employment also places a tremendous amount of trust and responsibility upon individuals, rightly or wrongly. The day-to-day aspects of teaching entail virtually no oversight for established teacher-scholars. Similarly, we are left to our own devices to produce finished research, typically only receiving formal feedback during a three-year review, or perhaps annually (depending upon your state and the governance systems in place at your university).

Because we must initiate in so many of our routine tasks, delegating responsibilities often feels like shirking duties. The cult of independence that permeates faculty attitudes and day-to-day routines encourages us to forget that we are on teams, within a larger system, and that no one person should be carrying a disproportionate amount of the load. Experienced academics have already recognized that the load of duties I’m referring to here is the service load, the set of responsibilities that, collectively, keep departments, colleges, and universities running.

Relative positions of power are important here too. I have seen professors, particularly in scientific labs, who are excellent delegators when it comes to dividing work amongst their graduate students, people who are essentially the professors’ subordinates. How and when to delegate becomes more delicate within the professoriate itself though, for academic rank does not work in the clear, hierarchical manner that the distinction between professor and graduate student does. A full professor is not the boss of the associate professors, for example (though, perhaps both are the boss of assistant professors, in some sense). It is sometimes difficult to determine when it is and is not appropriate to delegate a task to another. Your position may allow you the authority to delegate work to others, or delegation may need to operate more as a negotiation, as you approach colleagues and ask them if they are willing to help with particular tasks.

Here are a few points to keep in mind as you consider how and when to delegate parts of your service load:

  • Learn to distinguish which of your obligations are your sole responsibility to carry out, and which can appropriately be delegated to subordinates or willing collaborators. Speaking with people who previously held your position or who hold similar positions at other institutions may help you to learn the distinction.
  • Trust at least once. You’re going to have to allow others to either succeed or fail, at least the first time you delegate work to them.
  • Delegate toward your colleagues’ strengths. All of us are better and worse at different types of work. If you have tasks to delegate, the undertaking is likely to be more success if it conforms to an individual’s interests or agenda, or at least syncs up with their strengths. If I need help quickly, I’m not going to delegate the task to someone with a reputation for time management problems. Or, if I know that a particular task ties in with a colleague’s research agenda or other service obligations, I may seek out their help.
  • Show your gratitude. Nobody likes to be taken for granted. If you want help with work in the future, express your thanks when a colleague helps you out. A few words will go a long way.

When we delegate work that we ourselves should be doing, we unduly burden those around us, and possibly also evade handling the very responsibilities we’ve been hired to deal with. But too often I see colleagues crumbling under the weight of administrative work when in fact others are available, willing, and competent to help. Stories about the overwork of academics have abounded recently. Learning to delegate won’t reduce the overall amount of work that we’re all accountable for, but it might more evenly distribute some of that work, and reduce the amplitude of feelings of overwork and stress for those carrying the heaviest service burdens.


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