The Mental Difference Between Delegating Work vs. Abdicating Control

Delegating work to others is not a sign of learned helplessness, and shouldn’t be called such.  On the other hand, abdicating control is.  What makes it difficult is that the two can look the same in the first glance.  But once we look beneath the surface, we soon discover just how different delegation vs. abdication are in mindset.

I’m in a Dickens mood this morning, so I’m going to write an absurd story that should help to make delegation vs. abdication clear.  I’ll call it, “A Tale of Two Heiresses.”

A Tale of Two Heiresses

Once upon a time, in an imaginary city of steel and smog and talking fish, there lived two cousins–Daisy and Rosalinda.  Both had been brought up by their wealthy fathers (who were brothers) to believe that girls were too stupid to understand money and finance.  Since both men had married women who believed that myth as well, this was message the two girls were both quietly taught by all their family members.

“Don’t you worry your pretty head about money,” their fathers and grandfathers would say as the girls were patted on the head.  “Your family will always take care of you.”  And so the two girls were.

Until one day, during a cruise in the yacht owned by the two brothers, the yacht was seized by a giant squid and pulled down into the depths of the ocean.  Only the two cousins survived.  Everyone else perished.

So the two girls–both eighteen–found themselves back in the city with no living relations.

“Both of you,” the solicitor said to Rosalinda and Daisy, “are quite wealthy women now.  You two are the only living heirs to the Dickenston fortune, and it is to be split between the two of you.  Five million pounds apiece.  But your fathers named each other as the financial managers of your inheritances, and both men are dead.  So each of you is going to have to choose a new financial manager.  Two fish friends of the family were listed as alternative choices, and I’ve invited them here to speak so that each of you can make your choice–Mr. Prunes, and Mr. Tattle.”

The first to speak to Daisy and Rosalinda was Mr. Prunes.  He was a dour old carp dressed in black wool and leaned on a cane, and he kept taking off his spectacles to shake at them with his fin to make a point.

“Great wealth,” Mr. Prunes said, “means great responsibility if it to be wisely managed.  Many years of study await both of you.  You each need to learn how to read a balance sheet.  You need to learn about the tax laws.  And more.  I can help teach you those things.”

Mr. Tattle was a dapper old trout dressed in a sharp suit who smiled a lot.  “Don’t you worry your pretty heads about anything, my dears.  I’ll take care of both of you.  Leave the boring money headaches to me and enjoy yourselves.  You are both young and beautiful, and the world awaits.  Go play.”

Once the two young women were alone again with the solicitor, Daisy said, “I don’t know anything about money, but I think I can try to.  Maybe.  So I want to hire Mr. Prunes to be my financial manager.”

And Rosalinda said, “I’m too stupid to understand money, and I always will be.  And besides, talking about money is so tiresome.  I want to have fun and no worries.  I choose Mr. Tattle.”

And so the two girls went their own ways, and from the outside for the next seven years all looked the same to others–Mr. Prunes managed Daisy’s fortune, and Mr. Tattle managed Rosalinda’s.

But underneath, things were very different.  Each work day Daisy was sitting down with Mr. Prunes and going over the financial statements.  There were humiliating never-ending questions to ask, like “What is stock?”  There was the irritation and frustration of having to learn the tax laws.  There were the checks to sign and transfers of funds to authorize.  And Prunes advised her to get an education in something she enjoyed–in case there was a market collapse or other calamity that wiped out her fortune–so she chose Visual Arts (since she loved to paint) with a minor in Business (because she knew she needed to understand business fundamentals due to her fortune).

In the meantime Mr. Tattle became Rosalinda’s financial manager.  Beyond the fact that money would be transferred into her checking account each month for her to spend, she never got around to looking at the actual financial details.  She trusted Mr. Tattle, and saw no reason to bother about the details.  Let him do the grunt work, that was what he was paid for.

One Thursday morning, about a year after being hired as her financial manager, Mr. Tattle came to Rosalinda’s apartment carrying a long legal document in his fin, and a solicitor in tow.

“To make things easier for you,” Mr. Tattle said, “I think you should sign a financial power of attorney.  That way I can sign checks and business agreements  for you, and even sign the taxes for you so that you don’t have to worry about it.”

“Wonderful,” Rosalinda said, and signed without even reading the legal document over.  And she never gave it a second thought–

until six years later, when her payment for a necklace of aluminum cans  bounced.   And she soon discovered that where once she’d had five million  pounds, now there was only ten thousand pounds left.

Mr. Tattle had developed an addiction to gambling on turtle races over the past two years, and had at first “borrowed” money from her account to gamble with, and then “loaned” himself more funds from her accounts in increasingly big amounts in frantic attempts to win all her money back.  There was no way he could pay back Rosalinda’s money once she found out, because he was broke.

In the meantime, there had been a market setback, but Daisy’s fortune was estimated to have grown to about eight million pounds.  She’d hired an accountant and lawyer to help Mr. Prunes with the workload of keeping track of her investments, and also wanted them to teach her what they knew.  She still signed her own checks, business agreements, and tax forms.

Rosalinda spent the rest of her life saying to anyone who would listen, “Mr. Tattle ruined my life with his turtle race addiction.  It’s his fault I lost my inheritance.  I’d still be wealthy if it weren’t for him. ”


…. Daisy delegated work.  Rosalinda abdicated control.  What’s worse, Rosalinda abdicated all control of something she absolutely depended upon–her fortune.

I see nothing wrong with abdicating control of something if someone doesn’t care about it or rely upon it for their livelihood.   But for those things crucial to our careers and lives, delegation (where we maintain oversight and control) is a safer choice than abdication.


I’d also like to say a few things about techniques that can be used to deal with negative shocks, and will post next Monday about them.

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