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How to Deal with Upward Delegation

Maybe you’re not immediately familiar with the terms ‘upward delegation’ or ‘reverse delegation.’ But chances are, you’ve experienced it – both on the giving and receiving end of it.

What is it, you ask?

According to Quora, upward or reverse delegation is ‘ … when you delegate to your boss or someone in a higher organizational position than you are’ in an effort to get them to do what has been tasked to you under the guise of needing help or guidance.

Sounds simple – and reasonable – enough. But is it, really? Because when someone tries to reverse delegate their responsibilities to you, they miss out on an opportunity to grow – and intentionally or unintentionally push more work back on you.

And news flash: Upward delegation is often prevalent in our personal lives, too. Think about how many times you’ve asked your child to clean their room, only to discover that they’ve displayed such – likely intentional – ineptitude that you just do it yourself. Sound familiar?


Reasons For Upward Delegation

Maybe you like solving problems or feeling needed. Or maybe you just like helping people because you don’t like seeing them struggle. And who can blame you? But in business, allowing yourself to cave to those natural inclinations to help will do more harm than good.

According to Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail, Elizabeth Boyd, some reasons for upward delegation include:

  • Underdeveloped or developmentally stagnated employees
  • Lack of confidence
  • Fear of failure
  • Lack of initiative

Such reverse delegation ultimately results in employees taking company time to seek approval, advice and/or support for responsibilities often well within their scope of work and expertise.


Challenges From Upward Delegation

Granted, there are times when someone genuinely needs help or guidance. It happens. But more often than not, it’s an unnecessary escalation that muddies the waters of delineated responsibilities and can be a prime contributor to dreaded scope creep.

Reverse delegation can create a host of challenges for businesses, including:

  • Employees that never challenge themselves
  • Stifled learning and limited opportunities to make mistakes
  • Limited initiative in employees that actually want challenges
  • Manager burn-out as they take on more responsibility than they can handle

Teach A (Wo-)Man to Fish

The key to effective delegation is that tasks, projects and responsibilities get delegated – and stay delegated through to completion. Ask yourself these two initial questions to help you identify the source of the bleeding, choose-your-own-adventure style:

Round 1 Questions:

  • Is theirs a legitimate obstacle that is preventing them from doing their job? If yes, offer direction and move on.
  • Is it simply a way to pass the buck? If yes, then you need to return that hot-potato buck as quickly as they tried to hand it off by moving on to Round 2 Questions.

Round 2 Questions:  

Boyd suggests asking the following questions to gain an understanding of why they’re delegating upward:

  • Why are you bringing this back to me?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • Who have you reached out to?
  • What is your obstacle?
  • What do you think would be the best next step?
  • How would you proceed if I weren’t available?

Pretty clever, right?

Because as long as you’ve explained the task and its goals effectively as a leader and communicated your expectations, you have to – and this is easier said than done – let them fly or fail.

Ultimately, how your employees respond to your questions will reveal the true nature of their professional character, initiative and integrity. You’ll be better equipped to identify those employees who are eager to learn, grow, make mistakes and yes, even fail for the greater long-term good and success of your business.


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A Virtual Assistant or Bookkeeper can handle all the tasks that keep finding their way back to your desk. Let’s talk.