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The Do’s and Don’ts of Delegating Distasteful Tasks

I like people to get things done. One of the most frustrating things that I’ve run across in the course of doing work with lots of different people on lots of different teams is the idea that a particular job or a particular part of a project is beneath somebody, even if that person could get it done with just a little bit of elbow grease and some proactive leanings. So whenever I see something like that I think about my mom. She has a college degree and spent a lot of time as a teacher but also spent a lot of time when we were growing up working at a health club cleaning toilets and folding towels. This job allowed us to have access to a health club that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go to where we got to go swimming all the time, play basketball, and do a lot of other things. It was important to her that we had access to those things and so she did something that a lot of folks would have felt was beneath them.

I’m sure that as she was working her way through college her thought wasn’t, “Can’t wait to get done with this so I can be able to spend 15 years cleaning toilets.” I’m pretty sure that wasn’t high on the list of things that she thought she was going to spend her career doing but it was stuff that had to get done in order to get something else that was important to her accomplished. I think about that every time that I sit down to something that I’m like, “Ugh, I wish I didn’t have to do that” or I get the urge to delegate something just because it’s unpleasant.

Things like making calls to folks that don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say are easy to delegate but you have to think about why you are doing those things and the example it sets. If you are constantly looking to delegate things down, that’s going to be something that catches on with other folks. Eventually you run out of people you can delegate to and the things that have to get done don’t get done. Now I’m not saying there’s a line here where there are certain things that you probably shouldn’t spend your time doing because they’re a poor use of your time. I think it’s very appropriate to delegate in those circumstances but as a team leader or even just a member of a team you have to be careful about what you ask other people to do. Be honest with yourself about the reason that you’re asking them to do this task. Are you asking them because:

  1. This is something you don’t want or do?
  2. Are they better suited to do this particular job?
  3. Is this something that you really shouldn’t be spending your time on?

If you have the right answers to those question great, delegate it. If you don’t or even if you have some extra time and it’s something that is distasteful but it sets a good example that you’re doing it, you should consider going ahead and doing it. A lot of times if there’s something I’m about to ask somebody to do something that I know is going to be pretty terrible, I’ll try to sit down and at least do the beginning part of it with them. Hopefully this will:

  1. Share the misery
  2. Show that it can be done, it should be done and nobody’s above doing it

So with that said, enjoy your weekend and do something distasteful on Monday.

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Mindy Giberstone

this post started 1 way and took a left turn. Besides doing the work yourself (setting the example), any tips for dealing with those who think a task is beneath them?

Carol Davison

I try to assign work in accordance with skill and interest, but someone has to do the dirty work. In that case as an asthmatic, I hate and shouldn’t dust but don’t mind cooking, washing dishes, laundry, or bathrooms (which most people hate!), sweeping, or vacuuming. As someone also with tendinitis, I prefer someone else do the heavy work of washing the floor and carpet. When I was a 19 year old USAF dormitory floor chief, I would put a clean up schedule on the door about the 15th of the month listing who was due for duty the coming month, asking people to sign up or be assigned. It worked the entire 18 months I was there, except for one time when a woman moved out of the dorm without explaining her absence, and someone else excused her from the duty without collaborating with me. Collaboration is key.

Monika Dlugopolski

@Mindy Giberstone – in an environment where we are perpetually under resourced and short-staffed, we all have a role to play and often do things we’d rather not. Provided we are honest with ourselves and fair to each other, we should be able to articulate why we need someone to do something. Whether they think the task is beneath them or not, it is our responsibility to frame it in a way so that everyone can see how each of us contributes to the bigger picture. Yeah….at the end of the day, sometime it is easier to just do it yourself. It is important though to learn to delegate to those who are willing and the ones not so willing. Kill them with kindness, I say! (just don’t be condescending!)

(can you photocopy this for me please? Sorry to do this to you. I know everyone is busy; you can do it in your sleep, I know. I need it for the presentation we are doing in 15 mins. I still have to prep – you heard the direction just changed, no? I can brief you later. I really appreciate your help with this! I don’t know what I would do without your help)