Decoding And Avoiding Upward Delegation

Cheryl McMillanI was only 26 and excited about my new role as Controller. As a first-time manager, I was driven by a desire to be a leader who both listened to, and acted on, my employees’ problems. In fact, I encouraged everyone to bring me their unsolved problems. One after another, I resolved them and felt like I had nailed this management thing. “What was so hard about being a boss?” I wondered.

Doing My Own Work And My Employees’ Too

About a year later, I surveyed the piles of work on my desk, most of which weren’t really mine, and asked myself, “How did this happen?!” blurb'It didn’t take much reflection to find the answer and it was very clear: I let — no, I encouraged — my employees to dump their problems on my desk. As a result, I was doing their work while struggling to accomplish only part of mine. Just like that, I had become a victim of Upward Delegation!

Upward Delegation is when work is inappropriately pushed upward to the highest level in the organization that will ACCEPT it, and it was flourishing in my department. The consequences were serious. I was working long hours doing my employees’ work and as a result, they weren’t thinking for themselves or solving their own problems.

Reversing Upward Delegation

After stepping back to clearly analyze my dilemma, I took the following steps to remedy it:

  1. I looked in the mirror and realized that my desire to be a “good” boss was motivating me to accept the work of others.
  2. I recognized how requests for “help” were really requests for me to assume their responsibilities.
  3. I changed my behavior. Using a process of delegation and clearly defined priorities, I started coaching and stopped doing the work of others.

Motivation for Upward Delegation

If you also find yourself accepting the responsibilities of those under you when you shouldn’t, ask yourself what is motivating you to do it. Here are some possibilities:

  • Like I did, you want to be seen as a “good” boss.
  • You enjoy solving problems and seeing immediate results.
  • You believe “They” won’t do it right, or it takes less time for you to do it then to explain it.
  • You like technical work. Maybe you were you once an expert who was promoted, and now you don’t have the same interest in managing others?
  • You don’t have the right talent working for you. Have the job requirements outgrown some of your employees?

Decoding Employees’ Hidden Requests

Employees are a savvy bunch. Successful upward delegation encourages them to repeat it. Here are some of the clever phrases employees may use to push their work upwards and why they try:

These are code for “Tell me exactly what to do” which could be driven either by fear of reprimand/failure (CYA) or a lack of understanding about expectations:

  • “What should I do next?”
  • “What would you do?”
  • “Would you show me how to do this?”
  • “I want to keep you informed…”

These are code for “I don’t want to do this”:

  • “I need your help. I don’t have the authority.”
  • “I don’t have the time/resources.”
  • “I’m not sure this is my responsibility.”
  • “This is a problem that needs your urgent attention.”
  • “I’m not good at working with people.”

Change Your Behavior

Let’s look at the five most important behaviors that can help you avoid upward delegation.

  1. Upgrade your staff to ensure you have the right capabilities in each position. Then, review each employee’s roles and responsibilities to ensure that tasks, decisions and problem-solving are assigned to the lowest level possible. Make sure that outcomes and expectations for each employee are clearly defined, including the metrics for measuring success. Assign the best projects to those employees who want to grow. Assign routine, repetitive, low-risk tasks to employees who don’t want to develop new skills.
  1. Follow a delegation process and do not shortcut it. Many projects are sabotaged in the beginning by shortcutting the initial planning process.
  1. Spend more time coaching and mentoring and “push the monkey back” by asking open questions. Do not provide the answers! Avoid saying “I will get back to you. This just gives employees permission to stop working on the project. Here are some questions that may work for you:
  • “I don’t know the answer. What do you think/recommend? Come back within the agreed timeline and we can discuss your recommendations on how to solve the problem.”
  • “What have you done? What do you think is the next step?”
  1. Make it safe for employees to take a risk and fail. If your employees are not experiencing some failure, there is not enough risk-taking in your organization. Parenthood is a great teacher for being a good leader. A child learns to walk by falling. Your job as a parent is to let them fall and get back up on their own, within a safe area. If you see your child headed toward an unforeseen cliff, of course you would immediately redirect him/her. Nurturing employees works the same way. Let them fall and only intervene if you see a costly mistake in the making. Do so by asking questions such as “I’m worried about this project. What are the ways this project can fail? What would you do to mitigate that risk?” Publicly praise success, and also failure, in terms of what was learned.
  1. Be clear about your CEO role. Proactively delegate or stop doing anything that is inconsistent with it.

As CEO, Your Time Is Valuable And You Need To Spend It Wisely

For your company to grow, you should be spending 50-80% of your time on planning for the future! Eliminating upward delegation will free more of your valuable time while placing the responsibilities for your day-to-day operations at their lowest, most appropriate level — where they belong!