What is upward delegation

One Question That Stops Upward Delegation From Your Team To You

by John Kramp

If you lead and manage people, you face the challenge of “upward delegation.”

Someone on your team walks into your office with a task you’ve delegated. When he or she leaves, you realize that their task has just become your task once again. You have become the victim of “upward delegation.”

What can you do to stop this cycle?

You can ask one simple question: “Why?”

Stated another way, you can ask, “Why are you bringing this back to me?”

That question will prompt one of five answers. You will need to listen carefully and with discernment. The answers will help you make the right choice about what to do next.


Answer 1: “I don’t know how.” 

Your employee may have assessed the situation correctly. You may have delegated a task for which the employee is not prepared. Rather than allowing “upward delegation,” ask questions like these:

  • What have you tried so far?
  • Who else have you contacted for help?
  • What is the specific point in the project that is blocking your progress?

If people need more skills to complete a task, point them toward resources to increase their skill. Don’t do the work for them or you will short-circuit their opportunities to learn.

When they say (or imply), “I don’t know how,” you can say, “This is the perfect time to learn.”


Answer 2: “I don’t have time.” 

It’s easy for leaders to delegate tasks without considering the cumulative amount of work their team members are doing. If you sense that too many projects or too little time is the problem, ask these questions:

  • What are the highest priority projects you’re working on right now?
  • When are the projects due?
  • Who gave you these assignments?
  • If you were forced to complete them all on schedule, how would you do it?

At times, you’ll discover that you as the leader are the problem. In the press of your work, you may have overloaded key employees with tasks and deadlines that are unrealistic. If so, you can help the employee re-prioritize. At other times, all the tasks need to be done, so you must send your employee back to work. But you should affirm that you understand that the load is heavy, the deadlines are tight, and you appreciate the work required to do what is needed.


Answer 3: “I don’t want to be wrong.” 

Responsible team members may know how to complete a task, make a decision, or initiate action but their “upward delegation” stems from a fear of being wrong. If so, affirm that you understand the pressure of making decisions and being accountable for the results.

Remind them that the fastest way to learn how to make great decisions is to make a few bad ones . . . that you initially thought were good ones. Consider sharing a story of a decision you made earlier in your career that ended badly and what you learned from the experience.

Encourage the employee to work hard and make the best call possible. Express that you will support him or her no matter what the outcome.

This course of action will work unless you have allowed a culture to develop in your organization where people are reprimanded or fired for making a bad call. If that’s the case, get ready for a never-ending string of “upward delegation” discussions. No one will make decisions if you have made it unsafe to do so.


Answer 4: “I don’t want to work this hard.” 

Your team members will never come out and say this. They will hem and haw about it. They will describe their workload, sometimes comparing what they do to others in different parts of the company. In the end, they simply want someone to do their work . . . even you.

At times, people can become overloaded with work. On the other hand, some people simply don’t want to work very hard. They may not be lazy but they prefer to work at a more relaxed pace. Unfortunately for them, few of those jobs exist any longer . . . if they ever did.

So if you discern that team members are questioning the quantity of work they are being asked to do, simply say, “I know it’s a lot. But it’s what we must do to complete today. I’m counting on you to do it.”

If you have a solid employee, he or she will respond appropriately. If questions continue to flow, you know you’re dealing with an employee who lacks the work ethic required for today’s challenges.


Answer 5: “This is not my job.”

This response comes in two forms.

  • “Doing this task requires work below my job description.”
  • “Dong this task requires work above my job description.”

You will gain insights through either of these responses.

  • If employees believe a task is somehow beneath them, that means they can do the work; they simply do not want to. This response reveals a dangerous hubris that bodes badly for the future.
  • If employees believe a task is above them and they hesitate to tackle it, you get insights into their potential for growth in the organization.

The best course of action for the employee and for you is to send them back to complete the task.


Delegation and Leadership

Effective delegation remains a core task of leadership. Michael Hyatt and others have written on this subject and every leader should work to improve their delegation skills. Here are some of my favorites that Michael has written.

In the end, effective delegation means that tasks get delegated and stay delegated. “Upward delegation” interrupts this cycle and hinders progress.

When team members express concern about an assigned task, some leaders resort t0 position power and demand employees quit whining and get back to work. Over the years, I’ve found it much more helpful to ask, “Why are you bringing this back to me?” If I can discern “why,” I can do what is best for the employee, for the business, and for me.

In the end, leaders cannot be successful if they do their work plus the work of those who report to them. So once you delegate a task, don’t take it back incomplete. Help if needed. Redirect when required. Exhort and encourage. Mandate if necessary. But don’t allow delegated tasks to land back on your desk.