Ideas

Self-Preservation Leads to Poor Delegation

January 13, 2020
Thought

This is Part 1 in our series on Delegation. Check out the other parts here: Part 2 - Delegation Landmines, Part 3 - Successful Delegation, Part 4 - Delegation Series Summary

"If it is to be, it is up to me!"

This popular quote has been attributed to author and painter William H. Johnsen, but since there is little evidence to support this, no one can truly explain the original context.

What is known, is how it has become a war-cry for motivating self-confidence and taking responsibility for one’s actions. While it is important to be confident in your abilities and to take responsibility, this mantra is at the edge of a slippery slope to self-reliance. This quote justifies long hours and the thought that there’s no other way to get things done.

How often do these thoughts stir in your mind?

  • “I can do this faster myself.”
  • “I don’t have time to explain how to do this.”
  • “I’ll have to do this if I want it done right.”
  • “This is too important for anyone else to do.”
  • “I enjoy doing this and don’t want to give it up.”
  • “If my staff does this wrong, it will reflect poorly on me.”
  • “I don’t want my staff to get in trouble for doing this wrong.” or “I’m just trying to protect my people.”

While there may be truth and good intention behind these thoughts, they may reflect deeper feelings.

  • “I don’t trust anyone else to do this.”
  • “I want credit for getting this done.”
  • “I’m not good at explaining how to do this right.”
  • “I’m afraid I’m not capable of what’s required of me at the next level.”
  • “I get frustrated watching other people try to figure things out.”
  • “I don’t want my abilities to come into question if they do it better than I do.”
  • “I don’t want to give up control.”

These feelings leave you holding your cards close to your chest. You end up with so much on your plate that you don’t have time to do everything you should be getting done. As a result, you can’t take on the responsibilities necessary to progress to the next level of your career.

Experiences throughout our lives teach us that we can’t control everything. Those lessons have an unexpected consequence: we tend to hold onto control we do have. This urge to hold on is a defense mechanism from our survival instincts. Put a bit more scientifically, it is our innate need for self-preservation. We’ve had bad experiences when we aren’t in control, so we are trying to protect ourselves by maintaining control.

While control is embedded in our need for self-preservation, controlling environments conflict with needs established in a psychological construct called the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). At the heart of this theory is the observation that people have three primary psychological needs: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Our desire for control and to not feel controlled is related to the need for autonomy.

Autonomy is a measure of independence and freedom of choice. It may be hampered by a number of factors. In day-to-day life, we are subject to laws, societal expectations, and even the weather. We overcome this by adapting to the environment and making the most of the autonomy we do have.

In a business setting, autonomy describes the discretion of an employee to determine how work is done. Autonomy may be lost at work when you are confronted by company policy, menacing clients, or micromanagement. These factors contribute to extrinsic motivation, the motivation to attain things, whereas autonomy contributes to intrinsic motivation, the motivation to do things for the joy of doing them right.

Sam Glucksberg, retired professor and department chair for Psychology at Princeton University, decided to measure how quickly two groups could solve the same problem. He told one group he would measure the average time it takes to solve a problem requiring a creative solution. He offered the second group incentives to finish quickly. It took the second group 3 ½ minutes longer, on average, to solve the problem than the first group. It took longer with rewards in place. This may seem counterintuitive, but creative problem-solving is shown to require autonomy. The second group was submitted to more control because of their desire to attain the rewards. The former group was motivated intrinsically, while the latter was motivated extrinsically.

Review the following diagram to see different levels of motivation. Notice how the threshold of autonomy is only halfway up the staircase. This indicates that without autonomy, people aren’t even motivated to half their potential!

Think about the list above of reasons for holding onto things. What is the motivation tied to those thoughts? Is self-preservation squelching autonomy in those situations? Are you really maintaining control? Autonomy is not only lost when you are told what to do. You also lose autonomy as the things you are trying to control begin to control you.

For instance, when you hold onto too many responsibilities, you may find yourself giving little time to some important tasks, and you don’t have time to take on responsibilities at the next level. What happens? You become frustrated dealing with issues that you feel aren’t worth your time while you are unable to find time to do things that would set you up for promotion. You lose your autonomy to the control your busy life has over you. You may begin to have a feeling that your career isn’t going anywhere, and your work may begin to suffer as you lose motivation.

This is an extreme example, but the point is the same in many cases - without autonomy, individuals aren’t able to buy into their work and poor results follow. In the case above, you may become reactive to impending timelines as work piles up. The feeling of obligation to keep up with timelines serves as an extrinsic motivator. To quote the SDT study:

“…controlling contexts and extrinsic goals have been found to result in passivity and impaired performance because such contexts and goals tend to thwart basic need satisfaction.”

Here is the dilemma: We must foster an environment of autonomy and intrinsic motivation for our teams, overcome the thoughts and reservations listed at the start of this section, and still get work done. This is the case for good delegation. Properly done, delegation creates more autonomy, yielding more freedom to do what you need to do while cultivating satisfied and enthusiastic employees.

Here is the dilemma:

We must foster an environment of autonomy to permit intrinsic motivation for our teams, overcome the thoughts and reservations motivated by self-preservation to see a bigger picture (that has potential to accommodate those motivations), and still get work done. This is the case for good delegation. Properly done, delegation creates more autonomy, yielding more freedom to do what you need to do while cultivating satisfied and enthusiastic employees.

Check out the other parts of this series: Part 2 - Delegation Landmines, Part 3 - Successful Delegation, Part 4 - Delegation Series Summary