Tiffany Dufu was on the Good Life Project podcast discussing her new book Drop The Ball. I love her concept of “Imaginary Delegation” which she explained as:
You assign someone a task, but you only do so in your mind. You never actually tell the other person. It becomes a problem when you get angry over the non-performance of the task.
This is such a common story with household chores. You ‘expect’ your spouse or child to do something, but you don’t tell them they need to do it. Or you don’t tell them they need to continue to do it. For example, you ask your son to take out the garbage, and he thinks you mean ‘please take out the garbage for me today’ because you’ve always dealt with the garbage. You might think you assigned the chore permanently, but it depends on what you said. He might not grasp that you meant that you want him to take out the garbage every time it needs to be taken out. He takes it out once, and then you get angry when the garbage overflows again a few days later.
I think this happens in the workplace when office norms are not communicated. For example, you might have an unspoken expectation that everyone is responsible to maintain the copier. If it jams; you fix it. If it runs out of paper; you fill the paper tray. To you, this might seem obvious, but it might not be obvious to everyone. It is possible that the offending staff member worked previously in an environment where maintaining the copier was assigned to someone specific. Or perhaps they simply don’t know how to deal with it and are afraid to ask. This may seem trivial, but if you (and others) get angry, that anger impacts your whole working relationship with that person. They become known as ‘not a team player’.
It is easy to think of examples that illustrate imaginary delegation because the phrase identifies a common ‘failure to communicate.’ Expectations are placed without discussion. This doesn’t mean that you should suddenly communicate every single expectation in the home or at work. However, if you find that your expectations are not being met, then you need to decide if you actually communicated your expectations. If you find yourself constantly angry about some task that isn’t being done, step back and ask yourself whether or not there has been an actual conversation about your expectations. If there has been, then that’s a different issue. If there hasn’t been, then have the conversation. Clear communication is often the best solution to unmet expectations.