To The Rescue

Passing the Buck

Why do subordinates delegate projects to you? Are they just shirkers who want to dodge their toughest tasks? Actually, that's rarely what underlies an epidemic of upward delegation. "People doing upward delegation don't actually want to do it," maintains Ford. "They really would prefer to do their own work." Therefore, rather than looking to the failings of your subordinates in order to identify why upward delegation is flourishing in your business, you should take a closer look at yourself.

Experts pinpoint two causes that underlie most cases of upward delegation. The first is that you habitually overturn employees' decisions. When employees know that no matter how hard they work, you'll overturn everything they do, they lose the desire to do the job and will pass on as much as possible to you.

Is your way the right way? Perhaps, but by constantly rejecting employees' work, you ensure that they'll never develop the ability to make independent decisions--and that will block not only their growth, but your business's growth as well.

Are the costs of accepting your employees' decisions higher than the costs involved in blocking their growth? When employees see their decisions implemented, they're likely to take ever more care in their thought processes--meaning they'll make ever better decisions.

The second big reason employees kick work back to you is that sometimes they honestly don't know how to do the job you've given them. What should you do then?

For many business owners, the instinctive response is to agree to take the project back. Don't. The more shrewd step is to take the time to train the employee in what he or she needs to know in order to accomplish the task. "Ask, `What do you think we should do here?' If the employee says, `I don't know,' don't jump in with solutions. Instead, suggest to the employee that he or she come back to you with, say, three options and a recommendation later in the day," advises Blohowiak.

If the employee comes back empty-handed, don't give up. "Walk him or her through the process. And ask questions designed to teach people how to solve their own problems," says Fortgang. "This process may take longer than doing the work yourself, but if you do it yourself, you end up becoming an ineffective leader."

Adds Blohowiak: "It's the old saw about teaching somebody to fish vs. handing them a fish. Teach them, and you've solved their problem for a lifetime. In business, it may take time to accomplish this teaching, but it pays more dividends. You get to watch your people blossom, and you enable yourself to eventually be free to do more of the work you really should be doing."

You're also building the foundation for a business that will achieve continued success, says Ford. "For an entrepreneur, the only sustainable competitive advantage is leadership. And upward delegation is what most destroys it." But help employees grow, and you're creating leadership that will give your business a sustainable advantage. And that's the bottom-line reason why the next time an employee tries to push a task back on your plate, the only smart response is to just say no. Do that, and your company may start growing almost as quickly as you can delegate.

Contact Sources

The Herman Group, (800) 227-3566,

InterCoach Inc., (888) 23-COACH,,

Lead Well, (888) LEAD-WELL,

The Meyer Group, (831) 439-9607,

Optima Consulting Inc., (408) 257-0500,

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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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