Upward delegation

A common complaint I hear from senior managers sounds something like this: “I work very hard to meet targets, my junior staff members do not.  In fact I seem do most of their work for them.”man-leaning-back-piles-all-over-300x179

I can almost see some of you nodding now, because this problem is everywhere.  It is called upward delegation and it occurs when your company culture allows work to be pushed up to the highest level that will accept it. It is marked by senior people frequently stepping in to “save the day”.

In almost every case I have encountered, the problem has been created by decades of directive behaviour from the top of the company, producing an institutionalised reluctance at the very bottom. I first encountered the phrase when working with a global security firm here in East Africa. This was a huge enterprise with four substantial siloes (I use the word advisedly because they could not have been less collaborative). Each of the four siloes delighted in escalating almost every decision to the CEO’s desk. As a result, whenever I went to see, there were four large piles of paper, one at each corner of his imposing desk. Whether it was new boots for askaris or paint for offices… not one of his direct reports felt inclined to make decisions. It took him two years to reverse the trend. But in fairness he was swimming against a flow that had its source in the early 1970’s.

This is a game of diminishing returns. Less experienced staff miss the opportunity to learn through trial and error. With the boss earning more, the task just costs more to complete. And worst of all, the capacity to do all work becomes capped at the available time of the manager, who becomes overwhelmed despite having resources available.

So senior managers need to get better at delegation. More than that, they have to actively push back when they sense an upward delegation trap. Here are 4 of the most common:

Trap 1:  “I don’t have the resources”

This may be a true assessment of the situation, but often it means other things. Like “I want more people under me”,  “I don’t want to have to ask others to help me, can you do it?’  Or, more often, “I haven’t assessed the task very well.”
How to respond: Ask for a detailed assessment of the need, with proper substantiation.  Question whether your junior has looked at available resources within the organisation that might be borrowed for the job. If you are pretty sure that he does not need more resources, use a more direct approach that wastes less of your time. Say something to the effect of “I don’t agree with you.  Put your thinking cap on and find us a solution.”

Trap 2:  “How should we do this?”

Don’t jump to answer this question. Your mind is telling you “I must help my staff.” But beware of providing solutions that they are capable of finding (or bettering) on their own.  A directive solution from you will reduce ownership, and set you up for “You told us to do it this way.” Be smarter, suggest a line of exploration but make it clear that it is up to them to make it work.

Trap 3: “I have done my part”

If I ever hear this phrase inside the companies I visit, it seems to me more like the tolling of a funeral bell. Ringing either for the business or, more appropriately, for the career of the person who said it. The way to address this is to make your people responsible for outcomes. So what, if everything isn’t in their individual control? Collectively it will be, so that is what you must demand.

Trap 4: “We have a crisis”

This actually means: “YOU have a crisis!”  Some people create the impression of a crisis to keep you anxious.  That keeps you at bay.  At the end of the day, they reason, you’ll be happy that the project has finished… even if you had to finish it yourself. But most just escalate automatically when things go out of hand – straight to the desk of the willing boss! So try not to give in to anxiety. You’ll make a less emotional and more realistic assessment of the situation.  Get involved only if you need to. One technique that has worked for me is to ask another manager to help.  Proud managers usually hate it when their peers are asked to help!

The long-term answer to upward delegation is to build a culture of ownership inside your enterprise. If we were in America, we might promulgate a company chant: “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” But here in Africa, I think we just need to get better at giving junior staff a chance. Encourage them to take charge of outcomes.  Praise them openly for taking charge and delivering.  Don’t rush to pin blame when they fail. Make them understand that they will never have perfect conditions, far from it. They will have to seek help from others.

They will have to take a few risks.  They will have to suffer conditions that are outside of their control. For that is the nature of things in business.



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