Countering Upward Delegation
Thoughtful leaders know that well-prepared teams outperform loosely-knit groups of individuals. We’re also quick to say that we want to hire people that will “make us better” by bringing strengths we don’t already possess. Yet we often become a bottleneck for our organizations by being so ‘hands-on’ that we let employees ‘off the hook’ by taking on their responsibilities. Just like with savvy parenting, if we don’t allow our charges to struggle, they’ll fail to learn how to navigate on their own. When we allow them to defer to us, company growth is throttled.
If we really want an empowered staff, we must refuse to answer all their questions and solve all their problems! Most CEOs are already over-committed, yet routinely allow their people to delegate up by accepting the responsibility to resolve issues that employees should handle on their own. This is often due to the CEO’s reputation as an accomplished doer whose technical prowess initially built the company. Employees assume that we want this role and most of us allow it because solving problems makes us feel important. But upward delegation is the opposite of empowerment.
The net result is counterproductive. Micro-management is detrimental to developing and retaining a strong team. Upward delegation hampers performance, accountability, and personal growth.
How do you break a pattern of upward delegation? One way is learning to ask questions that place the responsibility back where it belongs… in the hands of the person trying to pass it off.
Some managers require employees to consult a pocket card or fill-out a form before asking for help.
The card asks:
(1) What’s the problem?
(2) Why is it a problem?
(3) What are the most likely solutions?
(4) Which of these solutions do you recommend, and why?
When issues arise spontaneously, it’s helpful to respond with: “I don’t know; what do you think?” or “If you were me, how would you answer that?”
Skillful managers use questions to delegate and empower in the most positive way. When problem-solving, they avoid the temptation to first assign blame or discover precisely what went wrong. Instead, they direct energy to the solution rather than the problem. We might ask, “How do we manage to avoid this problem in so many other cases?” or “How do we handle the clients that are thrilled with us so we can apply these things here?”
The book, Enlightened Leadership, calls these questions EQs – effective questions. By habitually using them, we can sharpen the way our team members think and encourage them to take initiative when facing problems.
When someone brings you a problem they could handle themselves, resist your normal tendency to accept it. Take a deep breath then answer with an EQ. Persist and allow yourself time to practice. In structuring your EQs, ask how and what questions, since why questions tend to prompt insecure people to blame-shift (i.e., “point-the-finger”). This is an unhelpful behavior that wastes time.