My Boss Refuses to Delegate: 360 Answers

Aug 27, 2013
14 Min Read
When Your Boss Won't Delegate Work

When Your Boss Won't Delegate WorkEach of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

For the past 6 months, my direct supervisor and I have been running what is typically a 6-person department. Due to a limited budget and slow hiring, we have been set adrift on our own with a lot of pressure from above to meet our department goals. I should also note that I have only been in this position for 9 months.

It is the busiest time of year for us and we have 3 new employees (including a new director) and my boss is a stressed-out mess. While I sympathize with her situation, she has also refused to teach me two key skills/tasks that only she knows how to do. Even worse, at this time of the year, those two tasks make up about 90% of the workload and it all falls on her. Her explanation for not being able to teach me these tasks is that she doesn’t have time and that I won’t understand how to do well it for several months…so she doesn’t bother even showing me the basics, even though I have the capability to do it.

While I do my best to help her out by training the other employees and trying to make the process smoother for her, I am pretty useless at this point. This is especially difficult when she has panic attacks and crying fits at the office about how much work she has and stays at the office from 8 am until 10 pm every day. I have also become the person who she “unloads” on when she needs to complain about other employees or the organization, which makes me hate my job even though the job really isn’t all that bad.

How can I persuade her to delegate tasks if she refuses to even begin training me or any of the other employees? And is it wrong of me to be frustrated and less and less sympathetic of her plight as a little delegation on her part would take a lot off her shoulders if only she were willing? Should I bring this topic up with our new director even if it means she might get angry with me for speaking about her?

Alexandra Levit says:

It sounds like your boss is having a hard time, and she probably doesn't want to delegate to you because she's swamped and feels getting you up to speed would take more time than she has.  Also, because you are still a relatively new employee, she probably doesn't fully trust you to do as good a job as she would do herself.

You simply have to prove her wrong, and this means you'll have to insert yourself actively into the projects on which your team is working.  Instead of asking her if you can help out and giving her the opportunity to say no, pick a task and go to her with a concrete solution for completion -- or better yet, with part of the task already completed.  Another strategy is to pick two tasks you'd like her to delegate and give her a choice.  For example, you might say:  "I know the new director has asked for our staffing plan by next week.  I will edit our job descriptions or put together the budget.  Which would you prefer?"

If, as you say, you can't do a lot of the tasks associated with the job because she hasn't trained you, then look for someone else to show you the ropes.  This can be someone inside or outside the organization, but get those skills now so you can show her that you can hit the ground running.

Since she seems to be struggling emotionally, I would also make it clear that you are there to support her.  Ask her, point blank, what you can do to make her life easier.  Do not judge her, gossip about her, or worst of all, tell the new higher-up that she's behaving inappropriately.  At the end of the day, she's still your boss, and if you continually show respect while also being assertive, she will gradually begin to see that you are a valuable asset.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

It’s completely understandable that you are frustrated with your supervisor’s behavior. However, at this point the only person in this situation you can change is you. To quickly and directly answer two of the questions, you probably cannot persuade her to delegate and I would not bring this up with the new director until a solution is underway.

First, don’t think of her as unwilling, but unable. The amount of stress she is under has rendered her temporarily incapable of behaving differently and you will only add to your own frustration if you try to change her. You are not her therapist or coach, but you are responsible for the results your department does or does not achieve. So instead, focus on changing the situation from a different direction.

Insist on learning those two key tasks. Don’t ask for training, but go out and do what you can to learn them. For example, tell your supervisor you will shadow her for a day or two. This should not take up any of her time; tell her you don’t need any explanations or training, you just want to observe. Watch her perform those tasks and take notes until you have the basics down. Perhaps you’ll discover a time-consuming piece that you can assist with and then hand off to her to finish it up, making her feel still in control. Day by day you can begin to take on more. Also consider if there is anywhere else you can learn more about what she is doing.

Additionally, refocus the complaints when they occur or simply refuse to listen. Complaining takes both time and energy… and both are resources that your supervisor is desperately short on right now.

If all your best efforts fail, ask for advice from the next level of management. Ultimately, they are accountable for the performance of your department and should be invested in solving any problem to help it be successful.

Anita Bruzzese says:

A lot of employees believe the reason a boss won’t delegate is because they just want to hog all the work for themselves, that it’s some big ego trip.

But there are many other reasons why bosses object to others helping them. They may have been burned in the past when a delegated task went awry. Or, as your boss says, she doesn’t have time to teach you.

I think you can chip away at these objections by:

  • Asking to sit in on some of her phone calls or meetings so you have a better grasp of the tasks that need to be done and why. Try staying late with her one night to help her with the workload – she might be inclined to teach you a thing or two when others aren’t around to distract her. Simply looking over her shoulder while she works may provide a lot of insight and give her a chance to coach as she works.
  • Carrying a notebook. When she tells you something, jot it down. This not only shows her you’re listening, but will help her see that you can be trusted to take directions seriously.
  • Offering specific help. “Lisa, I know we have a deadline next week for that project. I’d be happy to begin double-checking to ensure everyone is on track or follow up with that supplier who is running late and get the latest timeline.”  This shows that you understand what is important and gives her a choice of what you tackle.
  • Mentioning similar work. “I did a quality check for Brian last quarter on his project, and would be happy to do the same for you,” tells her that you’re not a total newbie.

Finally, keep her posted as you make progress to help develop trust and confidence in your work.

Oh, and forget tattling to the new director about her. That kind of tactic never works and will certainly harm your relationship with your boss.

Alison Green says:

If these two tasks are 90% of your department’s workload and she refuses to allow you to work on them, your department has Serious Problems (yes, capitalized) and it’s not going to be long before your new director figures that out, if she’s at all competent. But when that happens, you risk her misunderstanding the situation and thinking that you’re not contributing much because you can’t or won’t, rather than realizing that you haven’t been allowed to.

I agree with everyone above that you can’t count on her to give you the training you need and should start finding ways to learn what you need yourself. However, I also think you need to have a heart-to-heart with your supervisor – because if she’s not willing to let go of the work, you’re not going to be able to just take it away without her consent.

So you’re going to need to talk to her. Say something like this: “Jane, you are stressed out, having panic attacks, and working hours that are way too long. Meanwhile, I have time on my hands and the ability to take on some of this work. Not only that, but this is the job I was hired to do and I want to do it. We’re doing you, me, and the department a disservice by not utilizing me. Moreover, with a new director starting, it’s going to look really bad if I’m not doing my share of the work.”

And if that doesn’t work, you’re going to have to talk to the new director. You don’t need to present it as a complaint; you can simply explain the situation and ask for advice. This is a serious department issue that’s impacting your work, and a good manager will want to resolve it.

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