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A misunderstood phrase that prevents delegation

(March 18, 2024 Newsletter)

I recently had an interesting coaching conversation with a client about how to get someone on her team to do a better job of delegating.

As she was describing the challenge, I was reminded of the phrase “Don’t ask someone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.” It’s a beautiful sentiment of modeling humility, hard work, and connection – and like so many other inspirational quotes, it can hamper growth if implemented incorrectly.

Why is this important?

As you get more comfortable delegating or as you coach members of your team to do the same, this phrase can be misunderstood as “keep doing anything worthy of delegation or else your team will think you think you’re better than them.”

  • If misunderstood, it holds newer managers from getting things off their plate post-promotion, especially if they’ve been promoted over peers.

  • It can also prevent more seasoned managers from being perceived as ready for taking on more responsibility.

The key here is in the word “willing” – what does it mean to be willing to do the work that you’re assigning to others?

  • It means that you could do that work, not that the default is that you will do it on an ongoing basis.

Let’s take a few examples:

  1. Filling in a spreadsheet or dashboard with metrics.

  2. Getting to meetings early to set up or staying late to clean up.

  3. Stuffing invitations into envelopes for an upcoming event (or thank you letters after).

  4. Washing all the dirty dishes in the staff kitchen sink.

I have always admired leaders who step in to help out with these (often thankless) tasks, but have also worried about clients who do so many that they’re neglecting work that must be uniquely handled by them.

So when should you be willing to help out?

  • When a team member who regularly does certain “grunt work” is stretched thin with other timely tasks you’ve assigned to them (especially stretch assignments!).

  • When you’re short-staffed since someone gave notice, is out sick, or is taking PTO.

  • When you have a spare 15 minutes and can lend a hand instead of moving onto the next item on your to-do list immediately.

  • When there’s a full company effort to get something over the finish line.

Four ways to strike a reasonable balance:

  1. Pick one or two ongoing tasks that you make the effort to do with or instead of team members. Growing up, I always admired the camp director who would wake up early on Saturday mornings to slice the deli meat for lunch with the kitchen staff, or who had a routine of setting up the chairs for one weekly event. It was regular and symbolic without overtaking the core of their executive role.

  2. Have a sharp radar for when your team is reaching their breaking point and be ready to step in and take things off their plate. When deadlines approach, it can be very well received if you roll up your sleeves and dive into the mess with them without any bells or whistles.

  3. Watch your own instincts to hold onto responsibilities for too long. I once heard an executive say that the secret to his successful career trajectory was beginning to give away his job as soon as he got it. What he meant was making sure that he trained others on his team on elements of his role, gradually over time, so that 18 months to two years after he started that job, he and at least someone else on his team were primed for parallel promotions.

  4. If you’re stuck worrying about being perceived as “better than,” look around for evidence. What assumptions are you making based on past experience with your own bosses or organizational cultures? How can you clarify the kind of support you can offer your team without volunteering to take on their responsibilities?

With these steps and others, you can be a team player without neglecting core responsibilities of more senior leadership. And if this newsletter is something your peers could benefit from as well, forward it along and make it a team effort.


The Coaching Corner

Use your resources

In a final coaching session with a client this week, she mentioned offhandedly that “use your resources” was one of the more powerful lessons she took from our time together. As a new CEO, she had been feeling a little lost and alone in the transition – but identifying the resources she had at her disposal was a way to stay grounded and centered.

You can use this concept with your team as well. When someone comes to you stretched thin, ask them:

  1. What do you already know that can be helpful to you in this case?

  2. When have you already succeeded in overcoming this kind of challenge? How did you do it then? What’s similar here?

  3. Who else can be an ongoing support for you, in addition to me?



“The Hidden Toll of Surviving Layoffs” by Lora Kelley, The Atlantic (March 14, 2024) – a short but important article with a lot of links for those interested in going down a great rabbit hole.

“The 5 Love Languages of Appreciation at Work” by Karl Moore, Forbes (April 18, 2022). This quote is important: “An important point is that we tend to show the aspect that we personally prefer towards others because it’s the one we’re the best at giving. The shortcoming is that if we wish to express appreciation to one of our people, it is best done in the language which they most appreciate receiving, for it will have the most impact. Therefore, as a good manager (and a good parent and spouse), I must learn to speak all five languages of appreciation.”


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