Reverse Delegation

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What is reverse delegation? Reverse delegation is a term that describes a situation whereby a manager delegates a task to his or her direct report, but only to take it back, for one reason or another, to work on it sometime later. There are two ways, forced and unforced, that this may take place. In the forced way, the push back comes directly from the direct report that received the delegated task, whereas in the unforced way, the manager voluntarily takes back the delegated task and work on it. Regardless of whether it is forced or unforced, when it occurs, it reflects an ineffective delegation from a weak leadership. Most of you should be familiar with this and perhaps, involved in similar situations in the past. If not, below are some scenarios that may help ring a bell.

  1. You are the boss: Sometimes, employees may have this misguided assumption that since you are the manager, and presumably having a much bigger paycheck, you should be more capable and in a better position to handle a knotty problem in hand even though the task was assigned to them. So, whenever a problem arises, you will get a knock at the door followed by a panicky voice “Boss, can you look into this?” The smarter ones will probably say it with a little bit of flattery “You’re the boss. If you can’t handle this, no one can.” Somehow, they had forgotten that they were hired to solve their managers’ problems and not the other way round.
  2. In the loop: Another assumption that employees often make is that as long as they keep their managers in the loop in everything, they are in good hands. The usual response to a problem will then be “This is not my problem anymore. Since my manager is aware of the situation, she should take care of it.” What a clever way of escalating problem. However, this should not be taken as an excuse for shirking of responsibility. Expecting that the managers will intervene and solve their problems for them by keeping them in the loop is another subtle form of reverse delegation.
  3. I don’t know: It is very easy to say “I don’t know how to do.” Some people will even think that it is not their problems since they do not know or do not have the skills to complete the job. No doubt, there is nothing wrong with this statement; however, the attitude towards it makes a difference. No one is born to be omnipotent. The question is “Are you even trying?” I have seen employees putting up their hands asking for help so often that their managers have to guide them in every single step. This is as good as the managers doing their jobs for them.
  4. Getting it right:Damn it! Why can’t you just get it right?” We hear this once in a while blasting out from the manager’s room on a quiet Monday morning.  If you find yourself spending endless discussions and reviews with your direct reports to fix up the problems they have in the jobs that you have delegated to them, then you are in serious trouble. You have either picked the wrong guy for the job or the person is simply not motivated to get it done properly. Either way, you are stuck and shouting does not seem to help anyway. Regardless of the numerous reviews both of you had, your direct report still failed to deliver what you want. You are tempted to give up and say “Let’s forget it! Just pass it back to me. I’ll do it.” If you really do so, then you are falling into another classic trap of reverse delegation.
  5. Control freak: Most managers are narcissistic. They consider themselves to be better than anyone else and they do not trust the employees to do their jobs. They believe that the only way to get the job done is to do it themselves. If you are one of them, you will probably find yourself micromanaging your team most of the time. More likely than not, you will spend your day reviewing every single thing they do and checking through their mails to ensure everything is alright before allowing them to be sent. In some cases, you may even take back the delegated task and work on it yourself with the confidence that no one can do it better than you. It is time to wake up, control freak!

As a project manager, we often need to rely on others to help us with tasks that we either do not have the capability or do not have the capacity to handle. Delegation is, therefore, a crucial skill that project managers should excel in. Ironically, this is the area where most of us had flunked badly. What can we do to improve our delegation effectiveness in order to avoid reverse delegation embarrassments like those described above?

  1. Roles & Responsibilities: The first thing we need to address is to get the roles and responsibilities clearly defined and ensure everyone knows what to do – i.e. the employees should know that it is their responsibility, not their managers’ responsibility, to get the job done while the managers should learn to let go once they have delegated the job. Without a good clarity in roles and responsibilities, it is easy to get confused between obligation and escalation. Easy as it may sound, but many people do not seem to get this right.
  2. Empower the team: The saddest thing that can happen to a project team is the delegation of responsibility without authority. It is like putting your team in the driver's seat with a missing steering wheel. Apart from the risk of having your team crashed, you probably also have to struggle to cope with the deluge of decisions that you have to make day after day. In other words, although you have delegated the tasks to your team, you are still pretty much heavily involved in them at the same time. Your team will keep coming back to you for directions and approvals if you have failed to empower them.
  3. Trust your team: Avoid micromanagement at all costs. Learn to let go and trust that your team can get the job done. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Make sure you give your team ample freedom and privacy to work on the delegated tasks with the least harassment from the hawk-eyed management. If you find yourself charting the number of personal calls your direct reports make on a single day, watch out as you are going down a dark path that many managers had trodden and perished.
  4. The right guy for the job: You would never want to set your team up for failure. Yet, you understand that an occasional adequate amount of stress and pressure will help them to grow. Successful delegation is about having the right balance and depends a lot on selecting the right people with the required skills and capabilities to do the job. Failure to do so will likely leave you with a handful of unfinished tasks to follow up. The worst part is you will also have a demoralized and demotivated team to deal with.
  5. Making mistakes is fine:Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” said Albert Einstein. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes. People that are afraid of making mistakes will usually tend to shy away from problems. Create an environment that encourages people to make mistakes. As Ron Ashkenas advised in his recent HBR Blog article…failure is not only appropriate but absolutely necessary, most times to generate learning and improvement”, once your team understood that learning from mistakes is an essential part of the routine for improvement, it will be less likely that they will throw the problem back to you when they hit the dead end.
  6. Don’t be a hero: It is always tempting to rush to the rescue when someone calls for help. It makes you feel great that you are needed. The problem is as long as you are still wearing the Captain America mask, your team will not stop calling for help whenever they bump into a problem. You need to cut this habit before your team grows into overly dependent on you. The only way to stop this is to drop the mask and resist the temptation of being a hero. Your team needs to be more independent. They can never do that if you are still babysitting them. For example, you may want to ensure that your team should never come to you with just the problem alone and expecting you to solve for them; they should at least come up with a few proposals for discussion.
  7. Provide support: Support, don’t just ask for reports. When you delegate, it doesn’t mean that you can withdraw yourself completely. Do remember that you can delegate authority, but not accountability. You are still fully accountable. Have you given your team the support that they need to get their job done? It may not always have to be something complicated. Sometimes, simple things like a few timely sage advices and encouragements are good enough to get the team going. However, there is a difference between being a supportive manager and being a hero. Do not cross the line.
Posted on: August 20, 2012 02:11 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Great article, so many excellent points, tips, and advisements. I especially like the premises of empowerment which can be helpful to view both from the perspective of the importance to give it and the importance to receive it. Put another way, if you don't challenge yourself to receive empowerment and if you don't exceed your authority from time to time, then you really don't know what your authority is..!

Just say no!

I would say that ask what they need to get the job done (that isn't you doing it for them) is the best strategy I have come across to avoid reverse delegation. Interesting article, thanks.

Thanks Mark and Elizabeth for your comments. I believe reverse delegation is dangerous as it makes the team heavily dependent on the manager which is an unhealthy sign. The team will become less proactive and less efficient. It cripples creativity.

Isn't delegating without empowerment just "dumping" ?

Cathy, you're right on!

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