To The Rescue

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

This story appears in the March 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

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

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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