How to Stop Upward Delegation

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Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

4 minutes

Do you ever struggle with getting things done because you are frequently interrupted?

One thing I hear from leaders when I teach a workshop on time management is that they can't get anything done because of all the interruptions they encounter each day. Many of those interruptions come from their employees asking for guidance or direction. A manager in one of my recent workshops said, "I am constantly interrupted, and I can't get any real work done!"

Leadership can be challenging: managing a staff, meeting deadlines, dealing with emergencies, handling members and attending meetings. It can be hard to find time to do actual work on important projects or tasks. When I was a human resources executive, I often left the office at the end of the day feeling like I didn't get any important work accomplished, even if I worked 10 hours. Then I learned a skill that changed everything.

One of the biggest contributors to taking up a manager's time is upward delegation. Upward delegating is when an employee brings a problem or issue to you to solve. Whether intentional or not, the employee is shifting the ownership of the problem to you, their manager. These are things your employee should know how to handle themselves. Perhaps they don't have the level of skill yet and come to you for the answer, or they just don't feel comfortable making a decision.

How do you stop upward delegation, and get your employees to take responsibility for more of their own decisions? Here are three strategies:

Don't take the monkey. I heard financial expert Dave Ramsey give a talk once where he said when employees bring you a problem, imagine they are taking a monkey off their back and putting it on your back. Before you know it, your office is a zoo of monkeys! There may be legitimate times when an employee needs your help or guidance, but more often than not, the problem isn't urgent or is something they can solve themselves with a little resourcefulness. To stop the upward delegation, don't take the problem on yourself. If any employee comes to you and says, "How do you want me to handle this?" or "What should I do?" turn the question back to them. See the next paragraph for tips on doing this.

Use questions to shift ownership. Instead of taking ownership of the problem (the monkey), shift the ownership back to the employee. You can say, "What do you think?" or "How might you handle this issue?" or "What would be your next step?" Your goal is to get your employee to think for himself. You are teaching him critical thinking skills and ultimately coaching him to think through problems before he comes to you. It may take a few times before he makes it a habit to think things through on his own, but if you stick to shifting the ownership, he will eventually only interrupt you for urgent matters that really need your attention. Many times employees don't know they are allowed to make decisions on their own until you give them permission to do so. Shifting the ownership is your way of granting permission while walking them through the steps of critical thinking.

Close your door. Yes, I know everyone talks about the "open door policy" and your organization may even have a formal policy. While I know the intention is meant to ensure an engaging work environment, it's just not realistic to have your door open all day and get anything done. Keeping your door open all day invites interruptions. If you are working on a project or task that requires your focus and attention, close your door.

The key is how you do it. For example, walk out to your staff and say, "I'm going to close my door for an hour to work on an important project. If something urgent comes up, just knock." This lets your employees know you need focus time and that you are available if something is truly urgent. Employees are more engaged when they have an approachable and connected leader, which is more about who you are as a leader, not by how many hours your door is open.

Do you have employees who upward delegate? How do you handle this challenge? Leave your comment below.

Laurie J. Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC, Rockville, Md. She was also an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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