Are You a Victim of Delegating Up?

After reading my recent blog on managing up, a former classmate of mine from business school asked if I’ve ever encountered “delegating up” situations. Unfortunately, I have. While managing up is a win-win for both manager and direct report, delegating up, in all but a few instances, helps neither party and is counterproductive.

In broad terms, delegating up means pushing responsibility and decision-making up one level, with the intent of the employee to avoid accountability for his or her actions. It typically occurs when the direct report lacks the confidence to exercise judgment or does not have the required skills or expertise to execute effectively. It also flies against the fundamental management practice of pushing down responsibility to direct reports. Delegating up, in essence, takes the employee off the hook and the problems, decisions and work shift to the employee’s manager, who also needs to get his or her own work done.

Interestingly, some managers permit it, establishing a dangerous precedent by covering up for the employee’s inadequacies and inviting the upward delegation to happen again.

In some cases, managers have actually created the misperception that an employee is delegating up by diving in and taking over in areas that are a standard part of the direct report’s operating responsibilities. It appears that the employee has managed up so well that he has been able to shift responsibility up. Where confidence is lacking in the direct report’s ability to execute, there’s a simple answer – the wrong person is in the job and action is required.

The misperception of delegating up may also occur where the manager can’t stay out of the operating role. If the direct report has a team, this is highly undermining and it may seriously interfere with prior decisions and priorities.

Are there circumstances when delegating up is appropriate? Yes, and it typically occurs when the direct report does not have, for the right reasons, the authority to deal with certain situations. For example, when an employee, as head of a multi-functional team, can’t resolve an issue with a uncooperative team member and needs the manager’s help. Or there may be a major issue to be resolved with another department or a customer, requiring higher-level intervention.

In the vast majority of cases, delegating up is a signal that immediate action is required which may involve:

  1. Coaching for the employee: The manager needs to first ask, “Have I done something to encourage my direct report to delegate up?” For example, the employee was not given enough authority to match his or her responsibilities or is overburdened with other work that the manager has assigned. If that’s not the case, the manager needs to provide appropriate coaching to the direct report to get the over the hurdles or reach the conclusion that the employee is in the wrong job.
  2. Coaching for the manager: Managers that allow delegating up to occur or find themselves unable to deal with the situation should be coached before the situation worsens. Of course, the challenge is how to recognize this situation and who communicates the issue to the manager.

No one benefits from delegating up in the short or long term — not the manager, the direct report or the company.

Are you a manager who’s had employees delegate up? Let me know how you’ve dealt with it … or not.

One response to “Are You a Victim of Delegating Up?

  1. Hi Will,

    This article is very interesting, and talks about the situation I currently face with a small difference that – I intentionally look for opportunities to pull tasks up (as opposed to being pushed to me) to avoid extended delays of execution.

    Thanks for the insight on how to go about addressing it
    — idris

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