Daring to Delegate

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I was in an online conversation recently with a director who is very new in post. She was asking advice about a particular administrative task, and my contribution to the debate (since other people had already helped out with useful advice on the specific question) was to suggest it was something she could usefully delegate. She wasn't going to be short of things to do without this task, after all.

Her reply was one of those that I knew choral directors across the globe would empathise with:

I do appear to have taken on a great deal of other jobs as a job lot, but on the other hand haven't asked if anyone else would volunteer, so will bring this up at this week's rehearsal or at the first committee meeting (or music team meeting). Is it your experience that smaller choruses find it more difficult to field jobs out or is it the usual scenario of 'ask a busy person' regardless of the size of membership? A good proportion of members are in the 'elderly' section and I know, are not too keen to take on any responsibility. Committee and music team meetings appear to have been very few and far between so am working on making these more regular, at least until I get more of a 'feel' for the position and its commitments/what I feel comfortable delegating!

This is such a familiar dynamic: a somewhat passive choir, with the infrastructure for running it ostensibly in place, but in fact leaving pretty much all the work to the director. So I thought it was worth stopping to have a think about it to see what's causing the dynamic and what one might do to change it. For it not only makes the director's life harder than it needs to be, it inhibits the growth and development of the choir as a whole.

Now, in any group of volunteers, there will be those who step in and do something when they see a need, those who will do something if asked to, and those who just roll up and join in with fruits of others' labours. The ones in the first category often belly-ache about the others, although their pro-activity is part of what enables the others' apathy.
Circles of involvement: as illustrated in the BHS directing manual (link downloads .pdf)Circles of involvement: as illustrated in the BHS directing manual (link downloads .pdf)

Unless actively encouraged to move inwards, people gradually migrate to the outer, passive circles, while those doing the work compensate by increasing activity and effort, which lets the passengers off the hook and/or disempowers them further (either description can be apt).

When a new director arrives and finds that there are a whole load of jobs that need doing that nobody else seems to be on top of, this is a sign that this dynamic has been developing over some time, and that there is a well-developed culture of leaving it to others. The excuse of being 'elderly' (as in the example that inspired this post) is a common one for reluctance to take responsibility - but I know enough octogenarians still doing vital work to keep their choirs running to know that it is not age alone that is the issue here.

(And brief aside to celebrate these senior citizens who do such sterling work for our communities' cultural life.)

Now, it's worth stopping to consider why people aren't doing things. Firstly, it can be simple that they've not been asked. The people who see a need and step in assume that's how everybody operates, and those who will help if approached assume that they're not needed because nobody asks them. Both groups end up feeling a bit miffed, and thus the cycle starts.

But if you get past this first hurdle and call for volunteers, still sometimes nobody steps forward. People will usually say that they don't have enough time. And, whilst this will be true in a way, it's rather like saying you can't afford something: except in moments of real crisis, it is actually a statement of your priorities. It means that you have already allocated your available resources and are not minded to change them. (The 'ask a busy person' truism indeed is a way of recognising that the issue is usually one of willingness rather than minutes.)

But lack of willingness does not betoken laziness or selfishness; people will be acting with generosity and diligence in other parts of their life as a matter of course. The reason they don't leap to take on choir-operational tasks is that they are intuitively wary of taking up new commitments, as these take up disproportionate brain space compared to their current, happily automated lives. No, it won't take long, but it will take thinking about if you've not done it before, and that is hard work.

So the question becomes how to motivate people into embracing a bigger share of the tasks that keep choirs running. I will spread onto a second post for that one, as this is getting plenty long enough already....

This post is brilliant - very insightful can't wait for follow up.

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