I 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. 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.
About a year later, I surveyed the piles of work on my desk, most of which weren’t really mine, and I asked myself, “How did this happen?!”. It didn’t take too 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. 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 and my employees weren’t thinking for themselves or solving their own problems.
After stepping back to clearly analyze my dilemma, I took the following steps to remedy it:
If you also find yourself accepting the responsibilities of those under you, ask yourself what is motivating you to do it. Here are some possibilities:
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.
These are code for “I don’t want to do this”.
Let’s look at the five most important behaviors you need in order to avoid upward delegation.
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.
2. Follow a delegation process and do not shortcut it. Many projects are sabotaged in the beginning by short cutting the initial planning process.
Avoid saying “I will get back to you”, as you have just given permission to stop working on this project.
4. Make it safe for employees to take a risk and fail. If your employees are not experiencing some failure, then 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 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.
5. Be clear about your CEO role. Proactively delegate or stop doing anything that is inconsistent with it.
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.