I attended a talk recently on delegation, during which I happily absorbed some handy tips on the subject.  Long touted as an effective tool for the busy manager, delegation offers the elusive “win-win”.   When done correctly, it provides a way for you to get something off your plate while giving your employee an opportunity for growth.  

All was copacetic until a participant asked, tensely, “what if there is no one to delegate to?”

“You mean, what if you don’t have any direct reports?”, the presenter clarified.

“No.  I mean, what if no one wants to do any extra work?  You know, Quiet Quitting.” 

A lot of nods, and murmurs, and the chat space sparked with statements of agreement.  

“How are we supposed to delegate to a team that only wants to perform the bare minimum?”

“How are we supposed to delegate to someone who has no interest in progressing their career?”

A groundswell of frustration had surged forth and suddenly, the topic of how best to delegate was swept away by a wave of cynical sentiment: best practices of delegation are pointless when no one wants to go above and beyond anymore.  

Delegating before the Pandemic

Has Quiet Quitting really killed delegation, I wondered. And if so, what can we do about it? 

To begin to answer this question, let’s first take an honest look at delegation, pre-Quiet Quitting.  The truth is, we were lousy at delegation to begin with.  

We avoided it.  

Of all the management tools you could leverage to be a more effective worker and leader, delegation may be the most loaded and hardest to implement. 

Why?  Because you are actively looking at your own overfull plate, knowing you have more than you can successfully deliver, and saying “what of this chaotic heap can I give to someone else?”  

It doesn’t feel good.  And it takes work to get from that space to the space of “this is really good for this person.  They are going to grow from this experience.  And they are going to grow from this experience because I am going to be very skilled and thoughtful about how and what I give them.”  

That’s a big mental leap to make on a good day, never mind when you are feeling tired, overwhelmed, and like you are failing—which is when most of us begin to realize it’s time to start delegating.  

It backfired (and then you avoided it again). 

Woe to those who miss the mark with delegation.  Here are some of the myriad ways in which you can really step in it when delegating:

Delegating mindless busy work.

Delegating work that is too complex.

Not explaining why the work is important.

Not explaining why the employee is being asked.

Not training properly.

Not allowing room for mistakes.

Not allowing room to “make it their own”.

Not being available to give guidance.  

Not saying thank you.

Not giving credit.

Miss one or more of these and relationships get damaged.  Errors, introduced.  And a reasonable human manager might be forgiven for saying “to heck with it!  I’ll just do it myself!”

Delegation is based on trust–that most elusive connection between people where vulnerability and professionalism awkwardly collide.

So, let’s get real.  Even before Quiet Quitting, it’s not like you were that excited about delegating anyway.  

And, *tough love alert*: It might even be a little bit true that the idea of Quiet Quitting is actually a convenient excuse not to try.

Ok, fine–it’s Quiet Quitting that is killing delegation.

For argument’s sake, let’s say it absolutely is due to Quiet Quitting.  Let’s say that you are surrounded by employees who have decided that going above and beyond is not for them. Whether they are nobly upholding healthy boundaries or testing the bounds of laziness, we just don’t know.  I’m sure hindsight will bring clarity to that which presently has none. 

Regardless of why the people around you have quietly quit, the key to effective delegating in these times is the same key to success in all realms of work and in life: to recognize what you can’t control and deal with it quickly and effectively.  

If you would love to delegate your heart out, but believe you are leading a team of quiet quitters, you have these choices:

  1. Carry on carrying the full load until you collapse under its weight, business results suffer and your own credibility is damaged.
  2. Stop doing something outright.  Decide that some activities aren’t yielding enough fruit and, gathering management support where needed, stop doing them.  
  3. Reframe delegation as an assigned requirement, not just a gold-star activity, stellar development opportunity, or way to prove oneself for future promotion.
  4. Take the opportunity presented by your quietly quitting team to assess the work they are completing for its value and purpose.  Ask for their help in redesigning jobs accordingly.

Delegation has always been hard and our world through the filter of Quiet Quitting certainly doesn’t make it easier.   And I don’t know the extent to which Quiet Quitting is pervasive, long-lasting, or universally real.  (In a separate conversation after the talk, I heard from multiple leaders who said they do not see Quiet Quitting where they work.)  But I do know that the world of work is always evolving, and adapting to it is the best growth there is.  How leaders confront the challenging ratio of workload to capacity, whether through delegation or other tactics, will always be among the greatest learning opportunities given.