Women at Work: “To Delegate or Not to Delegate”

by | Feb 19, 2024 | All, Women in Leadership | 0 comments

From Amanda Kersey, Senior Audio Producer, Harvard Business Review-February 2024-The Women at Work newsletter is edited by Amy Gallo, Erica Truxler, and Holly Forsyth.

When I ask a colleague to do something — give listening notes on a new cut of a podcast episode, edit this newsletter, draft interview questions — I have to push myself to say when I need the work done by. I know logically that a deadline is a crucial piece of information that enables people to prioritize tasks, but there’s something about requesting a when on top of a what that makes me feel uneasy and communicate less than I really should.

In preparing for an episode of Women at Work’s career skills series The Essentials, I came across research that illuminated why we might avoid asking for help or stumble in the process. In their paper “To Delegate or Not to Delegate,” professors Modupe Akinola, Kathy Phillips, and Ashley Martin explain that because women aren’t socialized to assert our needs, we’re more likely than men to struggle with delegating tasks to direct reports. Here are the questions they examined that led to that conclusion and their advice for making delegation easier:

How do women view delegation?

The researchers asked MBA students with delegation experience to indicate how much they associated the adjectives other-oriented, supportive, developmental, and considerate with delegating. Participants were asked to rate their associations from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). The average was 5, with no differences across gender: Both men and women viewed delegation as an action that serves others. However, when the researchers asked about participants’ associations with the adjectives powerful, confident, aggressive, and controlling, women were more likely to believe that delegation aligned with these assertive, self-serving qualities. Given that prior research has established that people do not expect or encourage those qualities in women — and that female leaders are constantly trying to reconcile society’s conflicting expectations of them to be simultaneously tough and nice — the researchers hypothesized that women would harbor negative feelings toward a behavior that compelled them to manage that tension.

What emotions come up when women are delegating in their actual jobs?

An online experiment that asked managers to describe their relationship with delegation found that female managers used significantly more negative words (e.g., nervous, afraid, and scared) than male participants and that more of their responses connoted anxiety. In addition, women expressed greater guilt for potentially overburdening a subordinate.

How do anxiety and guilt affect how much and how effectively women delegate?

To answer this question, the researchers brought people (mostly university students) into a lab, assigned them the senior role in a partnered activity, gave them 35 minutes to complete six tasks — and the authority to assign some of those tasks to their junior partner. The “junior partner” had been hired and trained by the research team to track their experience of being delegated to: Had participants asked if they had time to take on more work? Did they seem to trust them to complete it? Did they check in on their progress and keep them motivated? The upshot? “In sum,” the researchers wrote, “we found that women delegated less than men when given the opportunity to do so. Further, women spent less time and showed less consideration toward their subordinate when they did delegate.” While participants who delegated finished more tasks, the assignments female participants handed in were scored as better written, more complete, accurate, and creative — even though they’d delegated less. “They essentially outperformed men through their own contributions,” the researchers wrote. “However, it is unclear whether women could sustain their outperformance across multiple tasks or days.” Here’s how the researchers made sense of these findings and how they play out for women:

Women’s concerns about violating their social role may degrade their interactions with subordinates, leading them to rush through delegating (evidenced by shorter interaction times) and to become more self-focused (evidenced by being rated as less considerate) as compared to men.

What would it take for female managers to develop more positive feelings toward delegation?

The researchers hypothesized that reminding women of delegation’s benefits to others would temper negative attitudes that might prevent them from delegating effectively. They tested this hypothesis by pairing up MBA students to role play, with one of them acting as the manager and the other the subordinate. Then they gave the managers instructions to ask their subordinate, who “has been working hard and is very busy,” to prepare materials for a client meeting, reconcile some expenses, and run a training session. Those instructions, for just some of the students, included this statement:

…you know that by assigning these tasks, you are being a good mentor, helping [your subordinate] to develop, and teaching yoursubordinate critical skills that are needed for the seniormanagement position. Sure enough, women who had received that part of the instructions reported feeling less anxious and guilty than the women who didn’t.

What are the practical takeaways of these studies?

The researchers encourage female leaders to work through any anticipatory anxiety and guilt they feel so that when they delegate, they do it to the best of their ability and can get more of their work done and done well.
Once you identify a task that you could assign to someone else, they advise in this short video, remind yourself that handing it off doesn’t only benefit you, but also the recipient. Delegating is a way of showing that person that you recognize their skills and respect their judgment. Being entrusted with work motivates employees and ultimately helps them progress (as long as these aren’t deadend assignments).

Even though I don’t manage anyone, I delegate tasks to colleagues more junior or senior than me, as well as to peers, and I’ve already started incorporating these research findings into how I approach delegation. I remind myself that by giving people all the information they need to respond to and prioritize my request, I’m not being aggressive; I’m showing consideration for their time. And by slowing down and delegating with both my and their needs in mind, I’m setting us up to accomplish more and better work together.

While most of the findings are, frankly, depressing, the researchers point to solutions and workarounds. Knowledge is power, and knowing that women are less likely than men to ask for deadline extensions, for example, might be just the nudge you need to make your own request and manage your workload better. Or, if you’re a manager, a reason to tell a female direct report in your next one-onone that if a deadline is ever hurting their well-being and performance, don’t hesitate to ask for more time.


The points of view expressed by the authors of videos, academic or non-academic articles, blogs, academic books or essays (“the material”) are those of their author(s); they in no way bind the members of the Global Wo.Men Hub, who, amongst themselves, do not necessarily think the same thing. By sponsoring the publication of this material, Global Wo.Men Hub considers that it contributes to useful societal debates. Material could therefore be published in response to others.

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