We are talking about how to avoid upword delegation, often also refered to as back delegation or reverse delegation. It’s a problem a lot of managers suffer from.
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When a task that you have delegated to an employee comes back to you – and you complete it. This is called reverse delegation or monkey business.
If you – as the boss – accept that an employee hands back the work given to him, then you do the work that your employee should actually be doing. That’s fatal, since you won’t have time for your own tasks.
In the following I’ll describe why so many executives have their problems with reverse delegation and how you can deal with it.
What exactly is upward delegation?
I can best explain it with an example:
Let’s assume that you delegated an important task to Jack last week. He was supposed to write the final report for Project XYZ by the end of next month. Jack knows this kind of project well and has all the information about it. You have complete confidence in him and in his abilities. That’s why you agreed with him that he only briefly reports back when he’s finished and sent the report.
Today you are very busy. You are on your way to an important meeting. Jack is talking to you in passing.
“Boss, I’m glad to see you. I’ve got a problem. I’m supposed to write that project report. I’ve put something together, but somehow I’m not getting anywhere. You know XYZ very well. Could you take a quick look at what I’ve written and perhaps add a few key words?”
So? How do you react? In your mind you are actually somewhere else – namely already at your meeting. Yeah, sure. You’re the expert on Project XYZ, but you just can’t be bothered to do it right now. You just think:
“How do I get rid of Jack as quickly as possible?”
So you’re answering:
“OK. Jack, give it to me. I’ll deal with it later.”
Opps. – You have another task on your desk – a task that you had actually delegated to your employee, right?
Delegating back: Monkey Business
Many executives fall into this trap, called reverse delegation. As early as 1974 there was an article in the Harvard Business Review about it. The title:
“Management time: Who’s got the monkey?”
The authors compared tasks to be delegated with monkeys. Whoever is working on the task and who is responsible for it, is carrying the monkey on his shoulder. As long as he has the monkey he has to take care for him and feed him. This is expensive and takes time. If this becomes too much, you need to get rid of the monkey. Now the boss comes into play.
If the boss delegates a task, he puts the monkey on the shoulder of the employee. After a successful reverse delegation, the monkey sits again on the boss’ shoulder.
And if the boss has a lot of employees and does not resist, then very soon a lot of monkeys sit on his shoulder. Then he feels like a zookeeper. He’s in charge of feeding a lot of crazy monkeys.
The boss will then no longer be able to work properly on his tasks because he deals with tasks that he’s not supposed to do. He does the work of his employees.
The boss becomes the bottleneck.
It even goes as far as employees having to wait for their boss. The boss becomes the bottleneck. Then the employees complain:
“My boss can’t get anything done. He’s overdoing it. Our team can’t go on because we need his input but his work is piling up on his desk. He can’t manage at all. Who actually made this guy an executive?”
Why does reverse delegation take place? You have delegated a task and your employee tries to return the delegated task to you. The question is, why?
It can have many causes. For example, an employee is under a lot of time pressure, whether he’s just feeling it or not. The work just gets too much for him. He has taken on or promised too much, does not want to admit it and therefore tries to get rid of part of the work.
Perhaps the employee also has too little self-confidence in his abilities or feels overwhelmed. Here, too, he has accepted the task, but in the course of time he realizes it’s growing over his head.
In these cases your employee needs your help and support. But that doesn’t mean that you do his job.
What can you as a boss do?
Let’s assume you delegated the task correctly. You also made sure that the employee has the competence to solve the task. If there are problems, you told him, he can approach you – but not just in passing. You will help him, but always leave the responsibility with your employee and make an appointment to discuss the problem. Then ask:
“What would you do if I wasn’t there?”
“To solve the problem: what have you done so far?”
“What ideas do you have to solve the problem?”
“To make to solve the problem: What decisions do you need?”
“What exactly do you need from me now?”
With this kind of questions you coach your employee. In this way you ensure that he doesn’t remain on the problem side, but rather comes up with his own solutions.
Beware of your impulses.
Many managers are used to making quick decisions and thinking solution-oriented. However, in such a discussion with your employee you should suppress the impulse to work out the solution yourself.
If you solve the problem, it doesn’t train your employee’s solution behavior. You don’t really help him but you make him addicted. Because the next time he has a problem, he’d rather go straight to you than work on the solution himself. That’s not what you want, is it?
That’s why you support him with questions. Talk a little, explain a little, but ask. Help your employee by coaching him to find the solution. Suppress your problem-solving reflex.
Why are many managers being tricked into upward delegation?
Many managers fully understand the concept of reverse delegation, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. They keep finding out that they have somehow been tricked. Suddenly the monkey sits on the boss’s shoulder again. How could this have happened?
Some managers fear that if you do not solve the problem, their employees may consider you weak or incompetent. Others cannot say no, because you have a reflex of wanting to help or you are simply tempted to take on a complex task again.
Upward delegation because of incorrect behaviour
Sometimes, however, managers simply react incorrectly.
Let me give you an example to illustrate this:
You’ve been the expert in your field – and then you were promoted. Now you have the leading role and know that you should hand over the technical task to your employees. It is not your job to do the work of your employees. You realize that! But deep down inside you are proud to be perceived as an expert and not just a leader. You want to keep the status of an expert.
Normally, this need is not a problem for you. If you are concentrated or have enough time to think, you are safe. You decide rationally in favor of the leadership role and consistently hand over the technical work to your employees and you don’t allow reverse delegation.
However, it is different when you are under stress and have to make short-term decisions – without much thought – for instance when your thoughts are already in the next meeting and you are approached unprepared by your employee Jack on the corridor on the way there.
“Boss, can you take a look at this? I mean you are the expert. You know best about it…”
That’s something you love to hear from Jack. You enjoy the short-term good feeling of being perceived as an expert by your employees. It’s flattering. It’s good for your EGO, good to hear that you are needed and recognised as an expert. However, in the long run you have another monkey on your shoulder.
How can you avoid this upward delegation?
You could just block the conversation with the phrase:
“Do you want me to do your job?”
But this isn’t constructive. It’s frustrating and only leads to your employees feeling that they aren’t getting any support from you.
The solution is: You make an appointment with your employee to discuss the problem indepth:
“Jack, this is not a good time. I am already late for my meeting. But we can talk about it later in my office. Let’s say in half an hour. Is that ok with you?”
You kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand: You don’t let yourself be determined by Jack and you hold back your impulse slipping back into your expert role. On the other hand, you give your employee enough time to think again about his problem. Maybe he’ll find a solution without your help.
3 Tips on upward delegation
Let me give you some help when dealing with “monkey business”.
Every monkey takes time!
Think very carefully about what you commit to. For example: If your employee asks you to participate in some unimportant project meeting because you are the expert. Don’t do it just because you want to please him or please your EGO. Think twice before you do it or before you make such promises. A meeting can quickly cost you several hours. Time you could probably make better use of.
With every monkey comes a supervisor!
If you have accepted the task, very often you have someone who depends on your completion of this task. Therefore, if you take on the task, you become accountable to others. After all, you make a commitment – and it doesn’t matter on which hierarchical level your supervisor stands.
Think about it: If you take back a task then your employee becomes your supervisor. Now he has all the right to ask you:
“Have you finished the task yet?”
A monkey rarely comes alone!
If you take on a task, your employee is rewarded for his or her behavior. He reverse delegated an unpleasant task to his boss. Now, he has more time for himself and is even allowed to supervise his boss according to the motto:
“Boss, have you finished the report yet?”
Oh, great! What’s happening? In the future, the employee will try to give you even more monkeys. That makes sense to him. That’s why I say: Don’t feed your employees’ monkeys!
Try to consistently avoid upward delegation. Not only in your interest but also in the interest of your employees.
The inspiring quote
“Delegating means letting others become the experts and hence the best.”
by Timothy Firnstahl