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December 10, 2018

Upward delegation

A common complaint I hear from senior managers goes something like this: “I work very hard to meet targets, my junior staff members do not. In fact I seem to do most of their work for them.”

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. In almost every case I have encountered, the problem has been created by decades of directive behaviour from the top of the company, producing institutionalised reluctance at the bottom.

I first encountered the phrase working with a global security brand. A huge enterprise with four silos - each escalating every decision to the CEO’s desk. I struggled to see him behind four pillars of paper. New boots for askaris or office painting… no one else made decisions. It took two years to reverse the trend: he was swimming against a flow that had its source in the 1970’s.

Upward delegation is a game of diminishing returns. Less experienced staff miss the opportunity to learn through trial and error. Capacity becomes capped at the available time of the overwhelmed manager. So senior managers must push back when they sense an upward delegation trap. Here are three of the most common:

“How should we do this?”

Don’t jump to answer this question. Your mind is telling you “I must help” but beware of providing solutions they are capable of bettering on their own. Don’t set yourself up for: “You told us to do it that way.” Be smarter, suggest a line of exploration - but make it clear it is up to them to make it work.

 “I have done my part”

When I hear this, 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 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.

 “We have a crisis”

This actually means: “YOU have a crisis!” because your staff escalate things to you as a default setting. Try not to give in to anxiety. Get involved only if you have to. Try asking another manager to assist: proud managers hate it when peers are asked to help! 

Long term, the answer to upward delegation is a culture of ownership. Here in Africa we must get better at giving people a chance. Encourage them to take charge of outcomes. Praise them for taking charge. Don’t rush to blame when they fail.

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

 Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

He helps organisations to deliver their brands through their people.

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