Grappling with the pain of delegating

My answer to “How do you see yourself as a project leader?”

Those past few weeks, I have been taking a short crash course in project management. Two weeks ago, after having talked risk assessment for most of the lecture, our teacher suddenly handed us some white paper and color pens and asked us to draw “how we saw ourselves as leaders”. 10 minutes later, as I was explaining to my neighbor the idea behind my scribble (shown above, just for the fun of it), his first reaction was “Well, you really must be terrible at delegating”. I really had not been thinking in that direction at all when producing my drawing, but as soon as he said it, I realized he really had put the finger on one of my biggest issues as a project leader.

If asked, I will of course tell you that delegating is crucial in a team project, since allocating all tasks to yourself is just not sustainable. In addition, it is also a waste of resources, since it is highly probable that some other team member(s) are more suited to executing certain tasks than yourself. As such, taking on those tasks means that they will be performed less well, or at higher costs – say, you might for example need to read up on how to proceed, or just need more time to accomplish the tasks since you are less experienced with the activities they require. Delegating is thus both a way to ensure that every team member gets a reasonable workload and a manner to make the project benefit from everybody’s respective sets of skills, potentially maximizing the quality of the project outcome.

That being said, I must confess that delegating almost always throws me into an emotional turmoil. Why? (1) The control freak inside me needs to ensure that things are done in a specific way and at a specific time. (Also, by a specific person: yours truly.) I cannot think about any rational argument that would give this train of thought any validity, but still. (2) I get this nagging feeling that I just need to be involved in everything in order to be worthy of my peers’ respect (#inferiority complex, and maybe #impostorsyndrome, though I guess you need to have quite a high opinion of yourself to think that your “I-am-not-good-enough” thoughts are due to something else than your not-being-good-enough). In my opinion, this already is a more rationally understandable issue. After all, the academic environment is highly competitive, and there is a fine line between your cleverly managing where you put your energy and your just being lazy. Also – doing less means being less visible, which can quickly turn itself against you in that kind of competitive setting. (3) I want to learn! How can I improve and grow if I always delegate the tasks I am less good at to other people? The opposite (4) is similarly problematic: Why should I delegate a task I know I can do well (maybe even best?) and will enjoy doing?

I have thus come up with three reasonable (and one rather unreasonable) reasons not to delegate – though this unfortunately hardly brings me closer to solving my delegating dilemma. Obviously, there must be a way to balance those different “interests”, namely (2) establishing yourself in your research group / field, (3) developing your skills set and (4) (still) doing (some of) the things you like. Any thoughts? Have encountered the same dilemmas as I when delegating tasks? What strategies do you use to help you delegate within your project team(s)? (You do not need to write a three-page essay, but I sure could use some help…)

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