Managing Managers: Avoid Becoming a Victim of Upward Delegation

A common work-happiness killer that lurks amongst senior managers is “I work very hard to meet targets, my juniors do not.  I do their work. I end up spending long hours, I am frustrated.”

This problem is everywhere.  The specific solutions would depend on the exact nature of the industry, organisation, culture, and project situation.  There are, however, some common traps that managers of managers should be aware of and avoid.

Before we proceed, I must reiterate the idea that a good manager must be a good person at heart.  You must have genuine concern for your juniors and their well-being.  Nothing makes me happier than to see juniors blossom under my watch.  I am sure that is the case for you too.  But don’t be naïve.

Trap 1:  Junior says “I don’t have the resources”

In many cases this may be a true assessment of the situation.  In other cases your junior may mean different things:

  1. I want more people under me: I like more people under my control
  2. I don’t want to have to request others to help me.  It’s too much for my ego.
  3. I haven’t assessed the project well.

How to respond: Ask for a detailed assessment of the need, with data.  Question whether your report has looked at available resources within the organisation which, while not directly being under his control, can be borrowed for the job.

When he says “I don’t know how this will work” you can respond with something nice that implies “It’s your job to make it work. Are you up to it?”

If you are pretty sure that he does not need more resources, you could use a more direct approach that wastes less of your time. You can say something to the effect of “I don’t agree with you.  Put your head to it and go solve things.”

If this is his way of breaking bad news about a project, it would be best to tell him what you think of the project status.  “I think you have taken this project into a crisis.  I want you to pull up your socks and sort things out.  I am not sure putting more resources will help.  Figure out all different ways of getting it back on track.”  Put it across nicely.

Trap 2:  “How should I do this?”

Don’t jump to answer this question.

Your mind is telling you “I must help my juniors.  I have to be there for them.”

But beware of providing solutions when you think he is capable of finding his own.  It could lead to a decrease of ownership on his part.  It could set you up for a “You told me to do it this way.”

You can be smart and clarify that you have some ideas but ultimately it is up to him to make it work.

Trap 3: “X is not cooperating”

In many organisations, heads of departments have to make things work across department and team boundaries and they spend a lot of time doing so.

This need not be the case.  Actually, the line managers should be doing it.

You can tell your report to go and build relationships and get things done even when resources are not in his direct control.  “Beg if necessary.  You are a manager.”

Trap 4: “I have done my part”

This is another common retort that you hear often.  Your junior can conveniently redefine his role as “doing some activities”.  In fact, he needs to define it as “doing what is needed” to get results.

Make him responsible for the outcomes.  So what, if everything isn’t in his control?

Trap 5: “We have a crisis”

Actually he means,  YOU have a crisis!  Some people create crises, when none exists, to display their troubleshooting abilities and therefore their worth.

Others create the impression of a crisis to keep you anxious.  That keeps you at bay.  At the end of the day, you should be happy that the project has finished.  Never mind that it was somehow finished.

Yet others find it convenient to escalate when things go out of hand.  Straight into the lap of a willing boss!

Tell yourself, “Relax.  Don’t give in to anxiety.  Let me take a hard look and see what has happened.”  This allows you to make a less emotional and more realistic assessment of the situation.  Get involved only if you need to.

See if you can explore other options like getting another manager to help.  By the way, proud managers usually hate it when other managers are asked to help, as they see this as a reduction of their power and esteem.

Trap 6: “I just want to keep you posted”

Some managers will cc everything to their bosses.  The idea is, when things go bad, he can say “But I kept you informed.”  You could thwart such tactics with a polite “I am happy that you keep me posted.  I would prefer a regular project summary that really shows the current status, rather than a cc of every decision you make.  You own the project and all the decisions there.  Don’t expect me to be on the watch for your errors.”

Trap 7:  Junior barges in for a big decision when you are busy or vulnerable

Clever juniors will carefully pick a time to talk with you and get your go-ahead on big decisions.  Either when you are very busy or most vulnerable, such as, just before the monthly review!

If you can help it, ask him to come later.  If he has finessed you, tell him directly “Don’t ever do this to me again.”

I had a junior who was adept at this.  He forced me to adapt and survive!

Building a Culture of Ownership

Last year I witnessed a leadership development program for top managers at a well known textile brand.  At the end of the program they were all chanting “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” That line bears repeating.

Encourage your juniors to take charge of outcomes.  Praise them openly for taking charge and delivering.  Don’t rush to pin blame when they fail, as long as they were really earnest in their effort.

Make them understand that they will not have perfect conditions, far from it. They will have to seek help from others not under them.  They will have to take risks.  They will have to suffer from conditions that are outside of their control. That is the nature of things in business.

Your own beliefs about being a “good manager” may come in the way.  Tell yourself “This is the only way my juniors will grow.  I owe it to them.”

Teach Strategic Thinking

Teach your reports to think strategically; to think of the big picture.  This topic deserves a separate post. So I won’t write much here.

The Shadow Side

This post is not meant to be a lesson in “non-stick” management.  Take this in the right spirit.  It’s not meant to be a Dilbertian view of management.  Indeed, you cannot promote an ownership culture without leading from the front.   I only urge you to be watchful for upward delegation.  And keep your wits about you.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Revathi on February 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    I really like this article. It is especially useful for women who do not delegate enough ( having been used to taking all the responsibility at home) or do not realise that they are victims of upward delegation.


  2. Posted by Sundar Parthasarathy on February 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Nice post. I have encountered these at various times and you make some good suggestions on how to manage such situation by keeping the focus on your report.

    Here are some things one can do to prevent or reduce such “upward-delegation”.

    A good starting point is to focus on the diligence that one exercises while delegating. For example, when you delegate, seek feedback and ensure that your report has developed a reasonable understanding of the task and the outcomes. Follow that up with an early review session in which the report is expected to present the plan / approach; key resources identified; important milestones; the measures to tackle dependencies as well as the report’s take on “what can go wrong” and what steps are identified to mitigate or respond to such events. This is a good way to build ownership and a sense of anticipation, whereby many of these traps can be avoided.

    It helps to also make clear one other expectation that your report must come into reviews not just to report variances and misses but with an analysis that identifies the causes and the steps that are identified or being taken.

    The time that you spend for delegation and follow ups is valuable. Use it to have conversations that build and sustain ownership and help your report become better at executing the plans. It provides your the opportunity to focus on specifics while coaching and guiding your report. By staying engaged, you will also become clear about sponsorship-actions that you need to own up to.


  3. Posted by Amar Wakharkar on April 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Good article. I really like the answer to trap 6.


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