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The Dangers of Upward Delegation

By: Gene Morrissy

Company leaders often complain about how swamped they are. Many mention how often they get called upon to solve problems—with a line forming outside their door. One CEO even complained that people show up and “vomit” their problems to her. This is delegating upward at its worst, and the impact on the leader as well as the team members can be significant. Ramifications can include:

  • Taking away time that could be better spent on the critical decisions that require the leader’s involvement
  • Creating extra work for the leader that is below his or her pay grade
  • Requiring too much “repeat business” if the leader has to continually solve the same problems
  • Delaying addressing the problem when people wait too long to start working on an issue because they must run it by the leader first
  • Limiting employees’ creativity to commit to solutions they have to live with
  • Leading subordinates to become intellectually lazy when they wait for the leader to figure out a resolution

Sound familiar? This happens far too frequently across many companies. There are a number of psychological factors that cause this to occur, including:

  • Subordinates fear being punished for making a mistake
  • Direct reports are too deferent to the boss
  • The culture encourages being too risk averse
  • The company leader has significant control needs or is only comfortable when he or she provides the “correct” solution
  • The leader loves solving problems or feeling needed by the team

These scenarios are suboptimal for everyone involved. Leaders frequently have good intentions of helping to speed things along. However, they fail to see that the problem starts with them because they have trained their employees to depend on them rather than encouraging their staff to be proactive. The result is that people in leadership roles cannot focus on the most important issues because they are distracted by things that should be solved by others. The more leaders get involved, the more frustrated they can become as more gets delegated upward.

Another consequence is that direct reports do not have the autonomy or the opportunity to stretch themselves to figure out ways to solve problems independently. They do not learn to seek out the resources that can assist in ensuring a good process is followed for problem solving. At a minimum, individuals should prepare for meetings with their boss already knowing the first questions that the leader will ask them every single time.

So, what can be done to short-circuit this process?

  • Leaders might consider a policy of “closed door but open calendar.” This means that if the door is closed, team members should not interrupt unless there is an emergency. However, they should be able to get on the leader’s calendar to consult on issues whenever there is an opening on the calendar.
  • Team members should come to meetings with answers to the routine questions the leader always asks.
  • People should come prepared to identify not only the problem but also the specific involvement they need from the leader, what they have already tried, at least two possible solutions, and their recommendation as to the best alternative.
  • Any good leader should be able to ask the appropriate questions to pressure-test the individual’s thinking, judgment, and problem-solving abilities.

These solutions allow for teachable moments in which everyone wins. The leader instructs and stretches the capabilities of the team. Team members are reinforced and praised for their initiative and better quality problem solving. The leader has more time for the most important strategic issues and for developing the overall capabilities of subordinates, including potential successors. All of this creates a more collaborative environment in which all the players take ownership to address the near- and long-term demands of the business. It seems like it might be worth a try. What do you think?

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