How To Avoid Being a Victim of Reverse Delegation

How many times has this happened to you? One of your employees comes to you with a problem, you talk about it for a few minutes and then say, “I’ll tell you what. Let me do some thinking about this and I’ll get back to you.”

Can I get an Amen? It happens to all of us. I’ll explain why it happens in a moment, but for now, let’s just take a quick look at what transpired in that conversation.

You, the leader, hired someone to do a job. You hired them in order to create leverage (or else you’d be doing that job) and you did that by delegating that work to them.

They ran into a problem that was their responsibility to solve. Rather than coming up with a solution to a problem that was/is their responsibility to solve, they came to you for help.

When they came to you for help, they began the process of reverse delegation. Note: Ken Blanchard in his book, “The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey” calls this the moment your employee is attempting to get the monkey off their back and on to yours (great mental image)

The moment you offered to help and said, “Let me think about it (or let me make a call) and I’ll get back to you,” is the moment the reverse delegation was completed. Why? Because in that moment, your roles changed. No longer are they responsible, you are. No longer are they reporting back to you, you’re reporting back to them. No longer are they working on a solution, they’re waiting for you to get back to them. That’s why this is called reverse delegation. You delegated a task. They ran into a problem. Then they gave it back to you and now they’re waiting on you. Everything about that whole scenario is wrong.

So, how can you turn this around and eliminate reverse delegation from occurring?

I. Realize Why You Allow It To Happen

The first step to fixing anything is to own that you’re the problem. So, why do so many of us allow reverse delegation to occur? Well, here are a few different reasons.

  1. We like solving problems. For many of us, we get excited about solving problems because it’s an intellectual challenge (i.e. a puzzle to be solved).
  2. We like to feel needed. For some of us, we get an emotional high from helping another person who has a problem. This is especially true when the person is doing a job we used to do.
  3. We like to help people. For some of us, helping others is a part of our ethical makeup, it’s who we are.
  4. We like to be the hero. If we’re honest, some of us like being “superman.” We like being the hero who rushes in at the last moment and against all odds, saves the world (okay, at least our employee).
  5. We don’t like people in pain. For some of us, our make up is such that we don’t like watching others suffer. So, if we can relieve their pain (the problem they can’t solve), we feel better about us.

There’s always a reason why we do what we do. And, if you take a look at that list, you should quickly realize that all of those reasons are about us, not our employees. Our actions are driven by us wanting something for us (and frequently to breathe life into our own self-esteem).

So, why do you allow reverse delegation to occur? Unless you deal honestly with the reason why, you’ll probably find yourself falling victim to it over and over again.

II. Recognize Why You Must NEVER Allow It Happen

As a leader, your job is to create leverage. It’s not to get work done, it’s to deliver results through leveraging the time, talents, treasures, intellectual property and resources of other people. When you allow reverse delegation to occur, you’re undercutting yourself as a leader. Instead of creating leverage, you’re adding more work to your already overcrowded to do list while simultaneously removing the responsibility for taking action from your delegatee.

The moment you agree to “help” the monkey has left their back and is now firmly on yours. They become the leader checking on you and you become the delegatee.

When you ask later that week, “So, what progress have you made on that issue we discussed the other day?” Their response is, “Well, I haven’t done anything this week because I’m waiting on you to get back to me. Remember, you said you’d think about it and get back to me (or you said you’d call Joe and get back to me). So, have you come up with any ideas (or have you called Joe)?”

Ugh! That hurts just reading it, doesn’t it?

This is why you must never allow reverse delegation to happen. It strips you of being the leader.

Moreover, it strips your employee of responsibility and learning to solve problems on their own (i.e. it creates a dysfunctional system where you’re needed and they’re ineffective). In addition, it holds back growth and progress for your business because not only are they not making progress, you’re dragged into their problem which means you’re not working on the big picture issues you should be working on.

At every level, reverse delegation is wrong.

So, my question for you is, are you committed to not allowing it to happen again on your watch?

III. Help Your Employees By Being a Good Leader/Coach

If you’re wondering, “Okay, but what do I do? They have a problem and it still needs to be solved,” here are a few ideas to help you move forward.

1. Let Out Your Inner Socrates.

Socrates assumed that people had the answers within themselves, they just didn’t know it. So, he would ask a series of questions to help them see what was already inside of them. In your case, it would be to ask your employee a series of questions that would elicit out of them some potential solutions. Remember, if you don’t want your employees to be co-dependent on you, you can’t be the “answer man” all the time.

2. Remind Them That You Trust Them to Find Solutions

When people come to you as a leader with a question, the easy solution is to give them an answer. However, that’s usually counterproductive. A better option is to say something like, “Joe, I trust you to come up with a solution. It’s why I hired you.” Some leaders prefer to go a little more hardline with a statement like, “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions,” but I prefer the kinder option 🙂

3. Offer to Help Evaluate Solutions

If you don’t want them to just solve and decide, make sure they at least own the “coming up with solutions” part of the process. In this case, you might say, “Joe, if you’d like me to weigh in on which option might be best, I’d be happy to do that. But the coming up with solutions part of the process is why I hired you. Come back to me when you have three or more solutions and then we can discuss which one would be the best option.”

4. Offer Ideas in Real Time

If they can’t solve it on their own and your questions aren’t leading them to the answer, the last option is to offer, in that conversation, ideas to help them. In this case, reverse delegation hasn’t happened because the onus is still on them. You’re only helping them in that moment where it’s still their responsibility. “Have you thought about …” “Have you contacted …” Or “Here’s a book (or a blog post or article or white paper, etc.) …”

The one thing you never want to do is to allow them to leave the conversation thinking that they’re now waiting on your for something. You should always be waiting on them, not the reverse.

So, there you have it. If you want to regain more of your time back, develop more resourceful and responsible employees, and create better leverage and faster growth for your business, make sure you refuse to allow reverse delegation to happen on your watch.

To your accelerated success!

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P.P.S. If you want to learn how to be a better delegator, I’ve decided to run a flash sale this week only (ends Friday at midnight EST) for my course on Delegation Mastery: How to Stop Dumping and Start Delegating Like A Pro. Save 30% and regain some of your life!