I first heard the term “up-delegating” when a manager in an investigation told me that the complainant was skilled at up-delegating her work to the manager. The witness was using the term in its negative sense. It turns out that up-delegating (or delegating up) can be a necessary and positive step as well.
Up-delegating occurs when an employee delegates or tries to delegate work to someone higher in the organization, typically the employee’s boss. It’s a concept that’s worth understanding in both senses.
The good. So when might up-delegating be appropriate? Typically, it’s a good thing when the delegating employee is asking the boss to help with something that the employee cannot do without the boss’s help.
One example is when an employee is given responsibility for a project but lacks authority over some of the people assigned to work on the project. Such a situation can be a recipe for failure if some of the assigned team members are uncooperative. In this situation, the project leader would be wise to ask someone sufficiently high up to explicitly empower him or her with the needed additional authority. If this doesn’t work, the project leader could ask this person to communicate directly with the relevant team members about certain matters or work assignments.
The bad. Up-delegating is not appropriate when an employee is trying to get his or her boss to do the employee’s work. Typically, this occurs when the employee is afraid to take risks, lacks confidence, fears criticism, or lacks resources. Often the manager is part of the problem by allowing the up-delegation. The manager may like being needed, be avoiding his or her own work, or lack faith in the subordinate’s ability to do the task correctly. The result, however, is that the manager doesn’t get his or her own work done and the employee continues to have the same problems that led to up-delegating in the first place.
To address this problem, the manager first needs to name it. Then two people need coaching: the employee and the manager. The manager needs to ask him or herself: “What do I do (or not do) that encourages my staff to up-delegate?” The manager should then make the appropriate changes in his or her approach. The manager also needs to ask the employee: “What is stopping you from doing this yourself?” Follow up questions may include: “How can I help you do this on your own?” and “This seems to be a pattern. What can we do to help you do these tasks on your own?”
Have you had any good or bad experiences with up-delegating? ~AS