The temptation of reverse delegation (Guest Commentary)

Nobody wins when managers take back the work they’ve doled out

We’ve all seen situations where managers delegate a task to an employee and then end up doing the work themselves, either because they take the assignment back or they allow the employee to give it back. This phenomenon is called reverse delegation. When this occurs, organizations make less-than-optimum use of their human resources.

Bosses who delegate work and then take assignments back from their staff are like parents who say to their kids “Here, I’ll do it for you” or “Forget it, I can do it faster myself.” In a work environment, this leads to two negative learning outcomes: 1) the employee doesn’t learn how to handle the task independently and 2) the employee learns that the boss doesn’t trust her to do a good job.

When you reverse delegate work, employees learn that you’ll always be there when they choose not to make an effort. Short-term, you get the job done, but long-term you’re not doing employees any favours. You’re allowing them to shed responsibility and shift it back to you. You’re signalling it’s OK for them to give up and take the easy way out. Meanwhile, they continue accepting their paycheques.
An example from my own practice: I witnessed a vice-president who had been put in charge of organizing the annual shareholders’ meeting interrupt a conversation between the president and a senior manager to ask what kind of cheese the president wanted to have for the buffet. Instead of saying, “You figure it out,” the president actually pondered the question and made a choice.

There are managers who say they want to delegate (after hearing about the benefits at a conference), give their staff assignments and then insist on approving every step in the process or questioning every decision. I once had a client who authorized HR to approve employees’ vacation requests, as she didn’t want to be bothered with something that micro-level. That sounded great but guess what happened? The client challenged every single approval because it was “crazy busy” that day or that week and the company really needed all hands on deck. 

My grandfather once spoke of a car repair shop that went out of business because the owner knew everything best and wouldn’t let people do their jobs. He spent most of his time lying under cars and doing the repairs, while the three mechanics he hired stood around and watched him work.

The best bosses I’ve worked for gave me a task, told me which results they were looking for and then left it to me to figure out how to get there. They were available as a sounding board if needed, but they didn’t step in or interfere. They made it my responsibility by not letting me off the hook. At the same time, the implicit message was that they had faith in my ability to deliver. Consequently, I gained new skills through trial and error. 

As Rush Limbaugh said in his radio show in 2010: “Most people, if you ask them as adults who was the best teacher they ever had, will tell you almost without fail that it was somebody in their life who showed them they were capable of much more than they thought they were capable of.”

When executives get sucked into reverse delegation, they end up swamped with trivial tasks instead of plotting company strategy for the next five years. Organizations have a hierarchy for a reason. The idea is that decision-making and execution are delegated to the lowest possible level, so that people at higher levels can focus on bigger issues. As Dr. Phil writes in Life Code: “Delegate to people who may not see the big managerial picture, but have enough knowledge of the parts and pieces necessary to succeed.”
Some people actually like not letting go — they love being needed for even the most mundane matters. They can never be away from work and think the organization would collapse without them. A number of them are control freaks who should never have been put into managerial positions, but they have their ways of getting there. They don’t really need staff — what they really crave is an entourage. Their egos drive them to be involved in everything, with morale and employee development as collateral damage.

Let’s say you run a company. Hiring people, paying them to work for you and then doing all the work yourself is counterproductive. Deploying resources this way can lead to massive inefficiencies — you end up doing work you weren’t hired for, while your reports end up getting paid for work they didn’t do. This is probably not something you would proudly explain to the chair of the board. The board isn’t paying you $300,000 per year to choose the cheese for the shareholders’ meeting.

Part of the reverse delegation problem is many people are addicted to the excitement of telling the world they’re in such demand that their life is out of control.  Ask anyone how things are going and I’ll bet their answer contains phrases such as nuts, crazy, crazy-busy, insane, trying to catch up, exhausted, swamped, hectic, super-hectic and rollercoaster. 

Heaven forbid they admit they’re not busy. At best, this would label them as lazy or disengaged. At worst, it would be perceived as an act of disloyalty to the hyper-society we live in and they wouldn’t be invited to the next neighbourhood barbecue.

Two approaches may work: self-help and HR help. Self-help entails acknowledging the issue, developing the self-discipline to delegate and then sticking to that decision. HR help is needed when people don’t acknowledge the issue, so it has to come in the form of performance management and actionable feedback.

First, if you delegate a task and the employee tries to give it back with all kinds of excuses, resist the temptation to take it back. Even if you are frustrated, make a point of asking the employee to come to you with solutions for the issues he ran into, and then decide between alternatives. Just don’t take it back and do the work. You’ll be sending a crucial message to the employee and the organization at large.

Second, once you’ve delegated a task, don’t interfere. Make people responsible for the assignment and encourage them to deal with obstacles and deliver results. You can let them fall on their faces a couple of times and hand them the first aid kit, but stay away from operational stuff — it’s simply not your job. Assume that you have competent staff and give them the opportunity to prove it. Or to prove you wrong.

Since relying on people’s self-discipline and ability for introspection may be dicey, you can achieve accountability by making delegation part of each manager’s performance review. Take my word for it — people start paying attention and change their behaviour when things are being measured and there are consequences. 

When a manager has three consecutive annual reviews on which lack of delegation skills is highlighted, would you give that manager additional responsibilities? Documenting the issue and providing meaningful feedback are crucial if it is to be addressed. This is where HR has a key role and the organization as a whole can benefit.

Evert Akkerman is a Newmarket, Ont.-based HR professional who has worked extensively in the private and non-profit sectors and freelances in PR and communications. Founder of XNL HR, he can be reached at [email protected] or (289) 338-4001.

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