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The surprising habit that's holding women back at work

Recent research suggests more women than men are likely to view delegating as aggressive. The problem? When women refuse to dole out tasks, they lose out on the chance to concentrate on the big picture.
Overhead view of design team having project meeting in office
Research shows that women are less likely to delegate work-related tasks compared to men. Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Delegating work-related tasks is particularly hard for women. As an executive career coach, I find this topic comes up a lot. But it’s important to get over the reluctance to delegate, because without it, we are holding ourselves back, as well as the people we lead and mentor.

While some struggles to delegate are linked to individual work and personality styles, there is a societal aspect to it as well. According to recent research from Columbia Business School, women are more likely than men to view delegation as aggressive and assertive, and more likely to feel guilty about delegating.

While it’s easy to promote the positive aspects of delegating—it takes work off your plate, frees up time for other tasks and gives opportunity to others—just knowing these benefits won’t necessarily move you to delegate more easily.

Here’s how to figure out what’s holding you back:

1. Uncover your excuses.

Many of my clients say they are overworked but have a lengthy list of excuses for why delegating “doesn’t make sense” for them. Here are the go-to excuses I hear most frequently, along with the reasons why they’re just not true.

Excuse: ‘Only I can do this well and I am successful because I’m so controlling.’

The truth: Others can be taught how to do any job well. Most tasks don’t need to be specialized or overcomplicated to get a good result. If, for some reason, there is a task that needs a special touch, even that can be taught to others. Remember, ‘what got you here’— your strong ability to do your tasks well— ‘won’t get you there,’ which is your next level of challenge and leadership. To advance, you need delegate out tasks you have mastered to free up your time for other more advanced work.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Anthony Scutro

Excuse: ‘I don’t have time to slow down to teach people the job and process.’

The truth: It can take a long time, but it’s worth it. The time you lose upfront will be made up, and then some -- once the person starts doing the job and it’s no longer your responsibility.

Excuse: ‘I’m fast. It doesn’t take me much time to get these tasks done and it’s easier for me to just do them quickly.’

The truth: Even minutes add up over the course of the day, plus there’s time needed to recover from the mental distraction that comes with frequently switching tasks. In fact, according to David E. Meyer, University of Michigan researcher, even brief mental blocks caused by multi-tasking can cost as much as 40 percent of a person’s productive time.

Excuse: ‘I don’t want to burden people, especially when they already have heavy workloads.’

The truth: It might be hard for you to ask others to take on new tasks, but you need to get over it for a number of reasons. For example, people might like these jobs better, can learn new tasks and may even be able to delegate their own jobs. Even if the people don’t want to take on the work, it still has to be delegated to ensure upward mobility for all parties.

Excuse: ‘In my business mistakes can’t happen.’

The truth: Mistakes happen in all businesses and with all client types. Systems can be put into place to do everything we can to make sure they don’t happen. But if they do, you just have to recover and work through it.

Excuse: ‘I’m just not good at delegating; I’ve tried many times.’

The truth: No one is good at the things they don’t practice. Delegating is not always easy or straightforward. There are a lot of good habits that need to go into delegation for it to be successful. And if it’s not practiced, delegation can easily be set up to fail.

2. Understand your fears.

Debunking my clients’ excuses can be enough to convince them to delegate. But when it’s not and they are still unable to delegate effectively, we have to explore why.

The root of any sabotaging behavior is often fear, but getting to the source of the fear can be hard. Most clients when asked about their fears around delegating go back to the list above—fear of mistakes, loss of control, etc. But I find that those are really not the fears holding them back. The most common fears I unearth around delegating are the following:

The fear of doing the harder tasks at work.

It’s easy to do the tasks we are comfortable with and know how to do well. If we delegate them off our to-do list, then we may have to do the harder jobs—connecting with clients, cold calling, pipeline building, writing, creating new marketing, etc. These other jobs can be hard, take time and don’t always have urgency, but are often critical to do. Many people fear them because they are difficult and there can be a lot of failure.

The fear that the work they have been doing isn’t hard.

Some people are afraid deep down that if they delegate their work, others will realize their tasks were not that difficult and anyone can do it. Since this may make them feel insignificant and less capable, it’s better to act like only they can do the job.

The fear that someone can do it better.

In this case, not only is the work not that hard but the new person does it better and may even have a better process. This person might improve their work so much, there’s the risk of feeling irrelevant and unintelligent.

The fear of appearing too assertive.

When delegating makes someone uncomfortable because of how they may be perceived, they avoid it or feel guilt around it, instead of seeing it as a means for others to develop.

3. Embrace the unknown.

It’s hard to grow, change and take on new responsibilities and habits. It’s easier to stay where we are and in our comfort zone. It’s also easier to grow only in the areas we want to grow versus the areas we need to grow. Delegating isn’t always about what we want to do; it’s about what we need to do. By delegating we open our careers up for growth and opportunity.

Delegating is an important step in moving to the next level of your life. Being able to see the big picture and the importance of constantly growing yourself and your team members’ task lists are critical steps in evolving. And always remember, it’s not just about delegating the jobs we want to delegate, it’s delegating the jobs we need to delegate.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries