Help! My brain won’t let me delegate!

Your brain has two natural conditions: calm, relaxed and creative, or ready to protect you from a perceived threat. Naturally, we all tend to spend far more time in the ‘negative’ state of avoiding threats. That was probably a very useful thing in evolutionary terms, but it can be downright obstructive when we’re trying to move forwards with something.

The idea of letting go of tasks, or delegating them to someone else, triggers all kinds of negative responses in our brains. We’re hard-wired to value certain things, and delegation goes against many of them.

However, the brain, for all its amazing skills, isn’t good at distinguishing between physical threats (you’re about to get mugged), or social ones (someone’s about to give you some negative comments on some work you did).

What your brain says to you

The brain gets very freaked out by three things in particular that are fundamental to being able to let go.

Brain alert! You’re giving up autonomy!

Our ability to control our own environment is crucial to us. Whether or not it’s rational, the fear of giving up our freedom to do things how and when we want is very powerful. The danger-avoiding part of your brain would, frankly, much rather you did everything yourself.

Brain alert! You’re losing certainty!

The brain likes to know what to expect. Call it being in your comfort zone, if you like. It takes less brain power, and it’s less threatening. But the very act of asking someone else to do something means that there’s a possibility that the outcome might not be what you want. In addition, our negative bias mean we almost invariably focus on how it would be done much worse, rather than so much better. Uh-oh.

Brain alert! This could damage your relationships!

We are intensely social animals. Even the most introverted of us values strong relationships. Asking someone else to do things risks damaging a connection: what happens if it goes wrong? What happens if they don’t like me afterwards? Much better not to risk it…

What happens in your brain

When the brain spots a possible threat of this kind, it releases the same chemicals as in the ‘fight or flight’ response. These chemicals, among other things, reduce energy sent to the rational, creative, part of your brain, and divert it instead to the brain’s instinctive, primitive centre.

While you might not notice a physical need to run, you’ll experience an inner recoil and discomfort. You’ll feel that something about this situation is uncomfortable. And that’s often a good enough reason for us to go with it. We’ll even come up with ‘rational’ reasons to justify our inner responses, such as ‘it’s too expensive to get someone else in,’ ‘It’s quicker to do it myself’, or ‘I can do it better myself’, without feeling the need to question them.

Oh no! Can I beat my brain?

You can’t make your brain less comfortable with a perceived threat. But you can retrain it that certain things are ok. That’s essentially what trust and confidence are: when the brain is comfortable enough with a situation not to react negatively to it.

The best way to get comfortable with something is to do it. A lot. Letting go or delegation isn’t something that comes naturally to any of us. If you think that someone you know does it very easily, that almost certainly means that they’ve practiced it. A lot.

Practice, practice, practice… and then some more

What can you let go of or delegate in the next week? Choose something that isn’t crucial to your life or your business, but would be nice to have it if it went well. Maybe that’s sending some research to a virtual assistant, asking an expert to sort out something where you’re out of your depth, or simply asking a friend or family member to do something.

Think of it as brain training rather than immediately transforming your life. That will come as part of the process as you get better at it. If you can learn how to find the right person, how to brief them so you get the results you want, and how to work with them in a way that’s natural for you, you’ll find that you can hang onto the things that really make your life or business better, and get rid of the rest. And your brain is certainly going to thank you for that.


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2 Responses to Help! My brain won’t let me delegate!

  1. Gail Gardner October 11, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    This is so true. It is also why most writers need to remove themselves from being around people. Drama and stress shut off creativity and keep your mind busy with survival instead.

    The key to successful delegation is to choose really competent people and then clearly communicate exactly what you want done. Both parts of that can be harder than you’d think. If you know the person is competent, look at how you can explain better. Then if they can’t or won’t do it well, choose someone else.

    I know this because I mentor many bloggers and get VAs and writers hired by clients regularly. Sometimes they are fully capable, but just don’t get the work done. Other times it can take a while to get them to understand what you want them to do.

    Delegation is essential to increase productivity and scale what you do. Eventually you will find the right fit and keep building on it. That is what makes a great team. Oh, one other thing. Hire the best and as long as the results are there, give them the autonomy to do many things their own way. That is why we want to work for ourselves – and that is what will keep your sharpest team members happy.

    Know the difference between what IBM used to call “wild ducks”: sharp thinkers who see what needs to be done and do it; and people who want to be told precisely what to do and how to do it. Give them both what they need and your like will keep improving.

    • Joanna Pieters October 11, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

      Hi Gail – you make some great points here. I like the ‘wild ducks’ idea – are the opposite ‘tame ducks’? We need both, after all, and as you say, both can do a great job in the right environment and if we manage them well.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!


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