Breaking the cycle: Overcoming delegation anxiety

Middle managers must learn how to shift perspective, delegate effectively and foster team engagement for sustainable leadership success.

We know people are burnt out, especially those serving the middle layers of management. The latest Work Trend Index reported that 53 percent of managers are feeling this way. 

In my past roles, I spoke with countless leaders describing turnover, novice teams and more demands from the business. This led to working all the time, working on tasks that should be completed by a team member, working in a state of reaction, and frustration with staff because they weren’t meeting “expectations” and development was non-existent. 

The same tasks show up and the manager continues to complete them because it is easier just to do it themselves than work iteratively with patience with a staff member. I observed five common themes among managers: “It’s easier for me to just do it; I have no one to take this work on; I wont be seen as valuable/upstaged; not actually knowing how to delegate (feeling shame because they don’t know and wont/can’t ask); I don’t have any time.” 

The following happens when we continue in this cycle:

1. Missed growth opportunities and effectiveness: By not delegating tasks and providing opportunities for employees to learn and grow, you are missing out on the chance to develop a more skilled and capable team. When a manager is not delegating and supporting skill development, they may be limiting their own effectiveness as a leader. 

2. Increased workload: Continuously taking on tasks that could be delegated can lead to an increased workload for you. Delegating tasks can help distribute the workload more effectively. Yes, it may take longer to coach and guide in the beginning – but that’s a small price to pay for the long-term gains.

3. Lack of team engagement: When team members are not given opportunities to learn new skills and take on challenging tasks, you’re teeing up a potential for decreased productivity and morale.

However, there is a way to stop the cycle of delegation anxiety. Here’s what you can do:

Recognize and reflect: Start with acknowledging the prevalence of delegation anxiety and its harmful effects on you and the team. It’s a common challenge faced by many. Reflect on past experiences where tasks were not effectively delegated and how it impacted workload, team morale and personal effectiveness as a leader. 

Take a breath and shift perspective: Understand that leadership and management are distinct roles. Leadership involves guiding and empowering others, while management involves overseeing tasks and processes. Recognize the importance of focusing on leading people rather than just managing tasks. 

Now, manage the things: Take an inventory of the tasks routinely performed by your role and assess whether you are the appropriate person to be doing them and why they need to be done. Consider whether these tasks align with strategic priorities and whether they could and should be delegated to team members. 

Take action: You must start somewhere, and you can start small. Tell the team where you need help and ask for ways the team can rally around that. From there, begin delegating tasks to appropriate team members based on their skills, strengths and development goals. Invest time. This can look like 15-minute check-ins. Break the time into smaller increments. I frequently use short huddles to find out: what the task is, ask how will they approach it, clear action items, etc.; it’s leadership through coaching.

You can work through delegation anxiety through practice and trying new ways to engage your team, monitor and adjust. You will see impact that’s positive for you and your team.