To The Rescue

Always stepping in to save the day? Stop doing your employees' work before it's too late!

Do you love playing the part of office hero who always intervenes to save the day when employees stumble? Good as it may feel, know that if you find yourself often falling into this role, you're heading not only toward personal inefficiency but toward the possible collapse of your business.

"When you keep saying `I can do it! I'm the leader!' you're rushing into paralysis," says Laura Berman Fortgang, a Montclair, New Jersey, executive coach and author of Take Yourself to the Top (Warner Books).

By playing the hero, you fall victim to an epidemic workplace malady: upward delegation. But how do you know if you're a victim? "Look at the work on your desk. How much of it had originally been given to others but has now come back to you?" says Joyce Gioia, a Greensboro, North Carolina, certified management consultant and co-author of Lean & Meaningful: A New Culture for Corporate America (Oakhill Press). When your to-do list is on hold because you're working nonstop doing jobs you initially delegated, you're suffering from full-blown upward delegation.

It can, however, be hard to say no to employees seeking help--even when it requires you to take the project off their plate and put it on yours. Saying no is tough for two reasons. Number one: It feels good to be the hero. Number two: Saying yes is human nature. "Bosses want to be seen as good people," says Gioia. "When a subordinate shows up at your desk and says `I just can't do this,' our impulse is to say `I'll take care of it.'?

"A lot of this has to do with the old patriarchal model of boss as father figure," adds Linda Ford, who holds a doctorate in human and organization systems, and is the owner of Optima Consulting in Cupertino, California. Again, the attraction is playing the hero. The problem is that in doing this, Ford warns, "You're burning your company at the roots."

The smoke turns frighteningly visible when you see the consequences that follow in an organization where upward delegation is rampant. Here are some ramifications to consider:

  • Your effectiveness plummets. "[Every day] it seems as if you're on a treadmill and can never get anything important done," says Fortgang.
  • Worse still: "If you accept upward delegation, you wind up doing little of the most important work," says Peter Meyer, a management consultant in Scotts Valley, California. How can you do the important work--the planning and decision-making that will grow your business--when you're bogged down with work you originally delegated?
  • By always stepping in and doing the tough tasks, you're crippling your staff's growth, says Don Blohowiak, a Princeton Junction, New Jersey, management consultant and author of Your People Are Your Product: How to Hire the Best (Chandler House Press). When a worker consistently delegates upward, he or she falls into "learned helplessness," says Blohowiak. "The better your staff is, the freer you can be to pursue value-added tasks."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: To The Rescue.

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