What If I Can’t Do A Task I’ve Been Given?

Question:
I feel scared about a new task delegated to me. I don’t know how to do it and I am not sure if I want to do it. But it’s my job and I can’t lose my job. What should I do?

Answer:
An effective supervisor or manager will not delegate a task that an employee has not been trained to do, has not done correctly in the past, or cannot easily learn to do. It may be that your supervisor did not follow that important rule. Or, it may be that even if you do not know exactly how to do the new task, your supervisor thinks you should or could be able to learn to do it easily. Your boss may have more confidence in you than you do!

For you to consider:
1. Have you discussed this with your supervisor? Let her know that you aren’t sure you know how to do the task or explain the part of the task that concerns you most. Your supervisor wants work done right, so it is in her best interest to make sure you can do it to her standards.

If you have discussed it with your supervisor and she acts as though she isn’t concerned about your ability to do the task, you may need to try to do it and show her your results before she will accept that you need training.

The exception to this would be if it would be dangerous for you to do the task without training and/or a strong degree of confidence.

2. Was someone doing the task before it was delegated to you? If so, is there a chance you could ask that person to assist you at first?

3. Are there written instructions explaining how to do the task? If not, you may be able to assist everyone in the future by developing your own set of instructions as you learn. That would also be a way to show initiative to your supervisor and further demonstrate that you need assistance.

4. Is it possible that you know how to do the task but the real problem is, as you said, not wanting to do it? You may have no choice. However, if you have worked there for quite a while and have influence based on being a good employee, maybe you can explain to your supervisor why you don’t want to do it and aren’t the best person for the task.

To be honest, I doubt that would work, if it has already been delegated to you. And if you are not a long-standing employee the attitude of your supervisor may be that you are there to learn and you’ll learn by doing, and that’s that.

5. That last line brings me to this point: Unless the task involves a knowledge or ability you simply do not possess to any degree at all, you may be able to do it well enough to get by until you learn to do it better.

For example, if you were asked to develop a software program and you know nothing about developing programs for computers, you would not be able to even start it, much less do it. But if you were told to conduct an inventory every month, you could figure out how to do it or develop your own method, even if you had never done it before. Many people have taught themselves to do tasks when that was the only choice they had.

It may be that the task you are now responsible for doing is one that your supervisor thinks can be learned with only basic instructions and she is confident you can do it just fine. If you have put all your efforts into it and are completely unable to do it, let her know right away, so the task will be done by someone. But until you have tried, using all your resources and really focusing on it, you won’t know if you can be successful or not.

So, your first action should be to let your supervisor know that you can’t do the task. If you know what you are lacking, let her know what training or equipment you need. If she still insists, work at it and do your best to learn how to do it. Give it all you have, so it won’t appear that you are purposely making mistakes just to get out of doing it. If you can do part of it, do that part and let your supervisor know you can learn and are willing to learn, but you do need more instructions.

6. The final point is this: Sometimes work is delegated to the lowest tenured person in the group, but usually it is delegated to the person a supervisor thinks has the time to do it and knows how to do it. Your supervisor may be wrong about you, but she may be right. She may even have picked you for the task because she wants to help you develop your abilities for more important tasks in the future. Whatever the reason for you being given a task to do, you want to do it well and in a timely way.

Use this as an opportunity to communicate with your supervisor and ask for assistance or support. Also use it as a time to demonstrate that you can be depended upon to give every task a hearty try.

Best wishes to you as you work to meet this challenge. If you have the time and want to do so, let us know how this works out for you.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.