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Managing Reverse Delegation in the Workplace

There are occasions in the office when your team members walk up to you asking for help or guide on a task you have given to them as their supervisor whereas in the real sense what they are doing consciously or otherwise is asking you to execute the tasks you have previously delegated to them.  Sometimes, it could be an innocent gesture that is masked in the desire to learn and be supervised or a direct bugging of the boss to feel the pinch of delegation. You have this experience, right? Do you know what we call it? This is what we call ‘reverse delegation’ in the workplace.

Reverse delegation, or delegating up is what we popularly call upward delegation in the everyday language we speak in the corporate world. It looks innocent but constitutes counterproductive work behaviour when practised.  In the previous edition (titled Delegate! There is No Superman in the Workplace), we had discussed extensively about delegation and because of the dynamics that guide the relationship between managers and their team members, the latter usually indulge in reverse delegation to the detriment of the former, and the organization as a whole. Reverse delegation occurs when the team leaders allow or enable (i.e. create an environment) the team members to delegate tasks back to the team leaders after they have assigned these tasks to the team members. The process could be aggressive or passive. Aggressive reverse delegation is overt and usually met with team leader’s prompt resistance and discipline, depending on the corporate culture prevailing in such organization. However, passive reverse delegation is covert, and team leaders need to be coached in order to anticipate, recognize and manage it.  

Delegation thrives and productivity is guaranteed with frequent workplace interactions and exchanges between team leaders and team members. These interactions and exchanges generate on-the-job training, meeting facilitations, feedback session, coaching session, mentoring session, story-telling, learning experiences, MBWA (Management-by-Wandering About) and all other models to ensure that the team leaders are managing their team well, and team members are aligning their expectations and performance with the set objectives of the organization. However, reverse delegation has no place in these interactions and exchanges, given that it is counterproductive and a drain on the resources of the organization.

If you have experienced this reverse delegation in the workplace as a team leader, you are not alone. It is a commonplace experience between team-leaders and team members which unfortunately inhibits rather than enhances performance. An average team leader who interfaces regularly with team members may experience instances of reverse delegation more than five times in a day. More often than not, you hear team leaders firmly asserting their authority and calling their team members to order during meetings or interactions to discuss or clarify tasks with question like “are you delegating upward?” Team members will delegate up, if not properly managed. So, you need smart supervision skills to anticipate this behaviour. 

There are some triggers that alert you that your team member is up to throwing back your delegated tasks at you when you interact. These signs are not difficult to spot if you are trained as a team leader to anticipate and recognize them. If you think that your team member has been given a seemingly challenging task that involves risk taking, you should be on guard. Such team member may want to avoid risk taking, particularly if your environment is such that frowns at genuine mistakes and heavily sanction inadvertent failures. Some corporate culture does not groom team members to take risks. They are simply risks averse. In this circumstance, your team member may nicely or rudely refuse to execute your assigned tasks, and ask you to do it yourself.

Secondly, your team members may lack self confidence and will keep coming back to you to encroach on your time. These ones ask endless questions, seek clarifications and require reassurance on the clarity of assigned tasks. These exercises (which appear like coaching or mentoring but are fruitless) amount to waste of your time. In fact, you are already providing answers to the questions you have asked your team members to answer in the first place.

Thirdly, the team members who want to “be needed” keep coming back to you for solutions to the problems you want them solve. Once you have delegated to your team members, they do not need to keep coming back to you except for reviews of milestones and quick wins.

Again, the team members who are unable to say no to requests for help are known to passive aggressively delegate up. They cannot decline because of lack of capacity and also their desire to impress their team leaders. So, the team leaders keep solving problems that they want the team members to solve in the first place. Team members who are unable to say no to requests for help are lacking in assertiveness skills, and should get trained.

Lastly, team leaders end up doing the job for the team members when the latter lack all the necessary information and resources required to accomplish the assigned job successfully.

The practice of effective delegation by team leaders is the most reliable way to manage reverse delegation in the workplace. Reverse delegation cannot be eliminated, but managed.  Team leaders should always provide all requisite information and resources to empowered team members who should be guided along agreed feedback model as well as predefined timelines and quick wins in order to ensure that the team members are living up to expectations and not creating windows for reverse delegation. The competences and skill level of the team members too are very important when team leaders are delegating to avoid unpleasant surprises of abandoned projects or poorly executed works.

Author: Babatunde Fajimi

Article originally published in Management Tips with Babatunde Fajimi The Union newspaper on Sunday in October 2014


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