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Leadership Without
Losing Your Soul

Podcast with David Dye

bad delegation

Help Your Boss Stop Wasting Time with Bad Delegation

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Podcast |

Episode 237: Do you ever get frustrated that your manager wastes time with bad delegation? They ask for something to be redone over and over, never seeming to know what they want? Or they change their mind after you’ve already finished what you thought they asked for? In this episode, David gives you practical tools to help avoid these frustrating moments and build a far more effective, collaborative relationship with your leader.

How to Help Your Boss Stop Wasting Time with Bad Delegation


A question of bad delegation?

Alright, today’s question comes from a manager named Declan, and that is not Declan’s real name, but we’re going to use the name Declan here. And conversation with Declan. Declan was pacing back and forth and fuming, and here is a synopsis of what he said. He said, I busted my ass to get this done, made sure it was perfect and I met every one of the projects requirements. I met with my boss today and she blew it off. She’s a world-class, bad delegator. So I asked, okay, what’d she say exactly? And he let out an exasperated sigh. She looked at what I’d done and she frowned, and pretty soon she says, well, this isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what you asked for. Yeah, but I don’t like this. It’s not what we need. We need to do it differently. So Declan says, did exactly what she asked, but then she criticizes the work and makes me start over. I’m so over this, she’s just going to waste my time. Why bother trying? So later went and talked to Declan’s manager and her perspective was a little different. She was grateful for Declan’s work, but she was also a little confused why would he be satisfied with something that doesn’t do what we needed to do? So Declan was frustrated, but so was his manager.

So let’s take a look at why your manager might waste time with what you perceive as bad delegation, because at the heart of their frustration, Declan and his manager, at the heart of all that frustration and disappointment with one another, there is an expectations conflict. Declan felt like he had clear parameters, he knew the assignment and he gets to work. He expected that by fulfilling those parameters, he’d done good work and that his manager would acknowledge that work. And if you’re like Declan, that probably all makes sense and I can be like Declan in this scenario. And if you’re like Declan, when you delegate, you probably think through the success criteria. You give someone clear outcomes to meet, and when they meet those outcomes, you’re satisfied. You may go for another level, you may iterate, you may do some other things, but that’s how you operate and you would expect other people to do the same. And when they don’t, it feels like bad delegation.

I like to say in David’s world, this is how it works, but we don’t live in David’s world because there’s other people. So what’s, and we don’t live in your world either. So what’s happening with Declan’s manager, she’s got different expectations. Her expectation likely includes the opportunity to iterate, to see something before she can respond to it and know if it’s going to work, if it makes sense or it meets the needs. Her mind. The goal is we need to do what matters most here. So for this kind of leader, their ability to see and touch a work product is crucial. And once they see and feel it, then their brain fires up. It starts making connections, and sometimes those connections result in those fun last minute enhancements that keep everyone working way past deadline, but do genuinely make a better product or service. Other times seeing and touching that work product makes them realize just how much something different will better meet the teams or the customer’s needs. So they scratch everything out and start over, but they couldn’t have told you that before they saw, touched and felt something tangible. So if you’re like Declan’s manager, you probably hope the first iteration that you get, it’s going to meet your expectations, but often you’re going to get something that disappoints you. It didn’t meet expectations you didn’t even know you had until you saw something that didn’t meet them.

So if you’re Declan, and again, my sympathy here for parties because I have definitely been Declan many a time where even sometimes I’ll create something that I’m like, wow, I’m solving this problem. I’ve built this solution, check this out. And then a manager or somebody will say, well, well that’s interesting, but why doesn’t it do this? You’re like, you didn’t even know it existed until five minutes ago. How are you questioning it or criticizing? And they’re not necessarily, you’ve just given them an opportunity to see and respond to something different. So if you’re a manager and you’re delegating, you’re dealing with and you have that tendency like Declan’s manager, please make sure and acknowledge their work. We’ll talk about that a little bit later in the show here. But let’s start with Declan. How do you help your boss stop wasting your time with bad delegation? So there’s some steps that you can take to help align expectations, lower your frustration, and keep your boss from wasting your time.

Solutions for Bad Delegation

The first is to clarify intent. So the next time your manager brings a project to you, ask about their intent. You might recall the past situation even and bring it up and clarify your intent for the conversation. For example, hey, last time we worked on a project like this, I put in lots of time on it and then you wanted to go a different direction. So my intent here is to ensure I understand what you’re looking for upfront and minimize those kinds of frustrations. Is this a project like that where you’d like something to respond to, or do you see it as being complete and finished the first time? If they clarify that, they need to see it in order to know for sure. Now you know how to proceed. Set up a timeline that allows for iteration and an initial draft or a proof of concept, which we’ll talk about in a minute.

Next thing you want to do is draw out the details. Draw out as many details as possible about what the task will achieve. And this is critical. It’s not enough to get specific details about what they think they want. Ask them what it will do, what will it accomplish? How will it improve the customer’s experience or your team’s efficiency or whatever the goal is, focus time on the outcomes they want to achieve. Once you know those outcomes, you’re able to ask questions and to help them think through the details. And that will in turn reduce the number of iterations you need to make. And it also establishes you as a more strategic thinker, which is a nice side benefit. So draw out those details by asking about the outcome. What is this thing going to achieve? What’s it going to do?

Then next is to focus on a proof of concept. So if you clarify success criteria and you work hard to build a perfect solution might be time to try a fresh approach. You can save time and frustration by starting with a draft or a proof of concept instead of delivering a finished product, start with a light version. What’s a draft of the task that gives your manager something to respond to? Give ’em enough detail that you can ask, is this on the right track? Is this feeling good to you? As you draw out details, you might hear your manager say things that feel ambiguous like it needs to sing, or I want it to have youthful enthusiasm. Those can be very frustrating if you’re kind of a detail oriented person because those are subjective standards that can vary and they fall into the category of I’ll know it when I see it. It’s not bad delegation, it’s a personality difference.

So give them something to see before you go to all the effort of building something that isn’t what they ultimately want. And again, with sing or youthful enthusiasm, draw out the details, clarify what they’re going for there. Or sometimes even you can find other examples. Let’s look at some things by comparison. What is something for you that sings or that has that youthful enthusiasm? And you can start to compare and maybe draw attention and bring out some examples that way. All right, number four, explain the trade-offs, and we talked about this in our previous episode, is even when you clarify intent, draw out the details and focus on a proof of concept, you’ll still have moments of frustration where your manager asks for more changes their mind or wants to go in a different direction. And so you get frustrated and you’re asking yourself, I don’t have time for that.

They understand what they’re asking and as we said, the answer is often no, they don’t. They’re living in a world of possibilities and guiding the team to create a future that doesn’t exist and that’s their job. So you need to help them understand the trade-offs. Just spell it out. Here’s what we can do, and here’s the trade-off that will require. Now when you have that conversation, your manager might decide the current version is sufficient or that another project can wait, or they’ll find more resources, but they can’t make any of those decisions unless you give them the information. So those are four steps to help you with your manager to avoid bad delegation, clarify the intent, draw out the details, focus on that proof of concept, and explain the trade-offs. Now, what do you do if you are more like Declan’s manager and you are the bad delegator? You’ve got a frequent need to respond and iterate.

First piece of advice, be clear about that from the beginning. Let your people know that that’s how you operate, and that’s going to help them to draw out the details and to focus on proof of concept rather than thinking that they’re done and they can move on to the next thing. They’ll be able to budget time and mental energy for enhancements or a full restart when that’s needed. If you don’t tell them that upfront, you’re setting them up for disappointment and frustration. Also, when you respond to a work product said this earlier, manage your communication so you aren’t critical of their work. Telling someone who’s poured their heart into doing what they thought you’d ask that their product sucks. It comes across as criticism of their work, but I know you don’t mean it that way, or at least I’m hoping you don’t mean it that way. (If you did, that would certainly be bad delegation.)

So you can try something else like, Hey, this is exactly what I asked for. You did a good job building that out. And as I’m seeing it, I’m recognizing this won’t work the way we’d hoped. Here’s what I’m seeing. What would you add? So you’re acknowledging their work and acknowledging the outcomes it needs to achieve and then inviting them into the process of moving forward. That kind of response empowers your people, it avoids demoralizing your team, and it includes them in the problem solving. So Declan, thanks again for bringing this question to us. I really appreciate your vulnerability and transparency in sharing it because I know that these are frustrating situations. And for everyone listening, you can help manage the frustrations that come from a boss who wastes time with bad delegation by taking responsibility for your communication with one another, align expectations by clarifying intent, drawing out the details, provide a proof of concept, and explain the trade-offs. And together you and your manager are going to build far more effective products, services, and projects with a lot less wasted time, and you’re on your way to being the leader you’d want your boss to be. Until next time.

Powerful Phrases for dealing with workplace conflict bookIf you’d like more specific, practical phrases and approaches for common sources of workplace conflict, check out our newest book (May 2024—available for pre-order now): Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict—What to say next to destress the workplace, build collaboration, and calm difficult customers.

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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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