Help! My boss has delegated a task and I don’t know where to start

You poor thing. If it helps, you’re not alone. Maybe your boss thought you ‘just knew’ how to do it. Or maybe your boss has just dumped something on you. It happens. Let’s be charitable: they probably haven’t set out to cause panic and despair or create a trap for you to fall into. It’s more likely that they’re flat-out busy (or they’re a little disorganised perhaps?) and simply haven’t had the time to take you through the task.

That doesn’t mean your options are to sink or swim. There are some DOs & DON’Ts for you to consider and decide which will work best for you and your manager.


  • Say ‘yes’ if you thought that was the right answer, even though you don’t have a clue. You’ll only have to break the news to your manager later and you’ll look idiotic for not speaking up earlier.
  • Bluff publicly and panic privately – you’ll only get found out when you stuff it up.
  • Spend ages seeking resources in shared drives if you’re not 100% clear on what you’re looking for.
  • Badger your team-mates to show you how to do it – and not tell your boss.
  • Sit there, doing nothing.
  • Complain to your team-mates and seek sympathy.


  • Be honest. If you’ve never tackled the task before, and/or don’t have the skills to get it done, speak up.
  • Seek guidance. Ask your manager when’s a good time for them to take you through the task in detail, as it’s the first time you’ve encountered this.
  • Clarify. If your boss says they’re ‘too busy today’ to delegate in detail, let them know that you’ll be working on ABC/other task meanwhile, and check that’s OK with them.
  • Get the big picture. When you have the conversation with your manager, ask where the task fits in the bigger scheme of things. What problem does it solve?  Where does it fit in the flow of getting work done?
  • Ask for examples. Hearing someone talking about something you’ve not done before can be baffling; you need to see examples of what’s needed. A list of live links? A completed spreadsheet? A slide deck? Examples are the best way for you to understand the standard required.
  • Get the details. When is the work needed? Who else is involved? What are the next steps? Ask where you can find resources such as templates, worked examples, process maps or checklists.
  • Seek support. If you haven’t got the skills needed to get the task done on time and up to standard, you’ll need to work on bridging the gap. What do you need to learn? Can your manager sponsor you getting training? Or can they ask a team-member to coach you?
  • Review and learn. When the task is done, reflect on how it went, the steps you took and what you’ve learned. Ask your manager for feedback and any pointers for the future; offer your own suggestions on how the work can improved.

P.S. If you’re a manager whose direct reports don’t know where to start…get in touch to find out how I can help you.

You may find this post useful: ‘Help! My boss ghosts me’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’


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Image credit: Pop Art comics icon “Help!” @ Agal-Amar – Depositphotos

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