Lessons of 2004: Delegation, and Bitches

I’ve been musing on the year that was — what I did, what I saw, what I heard about — and thinking about what is to be learned from the mighty shambles that was 2004. Today, I want to talk about what I learned about delegation, and about two-thirds of it boils down to this:

Nobody likes to delegate; everybody wants a bitch.

The difference, as I see it, is that delegation means assigning a task for which you are responsible to someone else whom you trust to get it right, while having a bitch means drafting someone to be an extra pair of hands for you because you can’t be everywhere at once. Almost inevitably, bitch work is of poor quality. There are a couple reasons for this.

First of all, nobody wants to be your bitch. If you have a bitch, either you’re paying them (whether in cash or less tangible forms of satisfaction) or they don’t realize they’re your bitch yet. It’s demeaning, and your bitch will resent you for it, and this will come through in their work.

Second, bitch work rarely shows initiative. This is because people tend to disrespect their bitches’ contributions, discarding (and occasionally excoriating) their labor if it’s not done exactly the way they would have done it. Over time, a bitch recognizes this pattern and sticks to doing exactly what they’re told, checking back for further instruction whenever there is ambiguity.

I cannot count the number of people I’ve seen bewailing the low morale, high turnover, and poor performance of their organizations, never realizing that their problems are a direct result of people waking up to the fact that they had been transformed from subordinates to bitches. And yet, people still want bitches.

Part of this is that you have to trust someone’s competence to successfully delegate to them, and competence is not falling off the trees in this world of ours. But the big sticking point, I think, is that at its heart, in order to really delegate, you have to be able to look at a project you’re responsible for, and say, “I think that’s the wrong decision. But it’s your decision to make.”

Delegation can’t just be “I trust you when I’m too busy to tell you what to do”. You have to trust your delegatee *all* the time, and you have to back their plays. Every time you override them — especially when you’re overriding something they’ve done in public — you’re saying, “Nice try, but we’ll do this my way, bitch.” And the bitch spiral takes another step.

Occasionally, that may be necessary, if something really huge is at stake. But I’ve seen far too many supervisors override their subordinates every time they disagreed, and every one of them had terrible morale and occasional revolts from the ranks. It’s not worth it to screw up your organization over minor points.

Originally published on LiveJournal