“So annoying, everything I delegate just lands on my desk again”, “Why do they always ask me instead of thinking for themselves?”, “All the responsibility’s on my shoulders”.
Do you find yourself in these statements? Well, you’re in good company. Almost everyone who starts to delegate tasks makes the same experience. Just as soon as you have handed over a task, it comes back to you – like a boomerang. That’s the phenomenon of reverse delegation.
In this article, I’ll explain why it is so important to get a handle on reverse delegation. Find out what makes you an unwitting accomplice of reverse delegation and discover the most effective weapon against it.
Caught in the Reverse Delegation Trap
An example: Frank has been with the company as CMO from the very start. He knows the marketing in and out. During our first coaching sessions he was barely able to focus. He regularly got Slack messages from his team: “Something’s not working. I don’t know what to do. Help me!”. So, he always sprang into action and helped his co-workers out of the mess. Because no marketing meant no sales revenue.
The problem: By helping his team, he regularly interrupted his own day. No time for strategizing, no time for co-workers and personnel development. At the same time, he was plagued by the increasing feeling that his team took on less and less responsibilities, lost its competency, and started to dump even the least important garbage at this doorstep. The most frustrating part? His help wasn’t even appreciated. Quite the opposite: His team accused him of neglecting the overall strategy and his co-workers, and not engaging in team building enough. Frank was caught between a rock and a hard place.
5 Insights about Reverse Delegation
Does that sound overly dramatized to you? Let me tell you: it really isn’t. That’s the reality in many teams. We want to help and take on responsibilitíes that should remain with the team. That’s a classic case of reverse delegation. Frank’s example perfectly illustrates the dynamics of reverse delegation.
Every Yes is a No. Every boomerang that comes back to you, costs time. Dealing with that easily amounts to you 20-25% of your working hours. That’s valuable time missing somewhere elsewhere – in the leadership and development or in the strategy department. On top, these requests scramble your whole day; focused work becomes almost impossible.
Your co-worker = your boss. Reverse delegation leads to reversed roles. You assume responsibility and your co-worker holds you accountable. They become the managers of your time – suddenly they are at your door and demand to know: “When is this going to be finished? I can’t continue my work if this isn’t done”
Caution – contagious disease! Reverse delegation is the simplest way to stay in your comfort zone, both for you and your team. The better reverse delegation works, the more it’s going to happen.
Reverse delegation produces stupidity. Every time your teams successly reverse-delegates a task back to you, they lose competency. Your co-workers lose the ability to solve their own problems. That’s the very definition of self-taught helplessness.
Loss of leadership. If you aren’t careful, your co-worker’s tasks are going to pile up on your desk. You’ll get stuck in the hamster-wheel and lose any kind of perspective for the big picture. Soon, the grievances will start to pour in: He/she doesn’t get anything done. He/she is stuck in the operative side of things and doesn’t lead anymore. Why is he/she even the boss? Sounds exaggerated? Sadly, it isn’t. I’ve heard all these complaints before.
Stop Being an Accomplice
Reverse delegation is a cancer and should be expunged immediately. Most likely you will think: “The team should just assume the responsibility for task! I’m going to give them one stern talking-to and it’s done.”
Sadly, it’s not as easy as that. The team can only take up the responsibility for a task, if you really hand it over. As long as you accept reverse delegation, you are going to be an accomplice and help create the situations where everyone’s unhappy. There’s another thing that makes you an accomplice: Taking back responsibility also is a self-serving act: maybe it gives you some kind of affirmation, or the pleasant sensation of having helped someone.
That’s why you will only get out of this situation if you find out why you like to take back responsibility. Do you want to be strong? Perfect? To be finish every task as quickly as possible? Or do you want to do something for your co-workers? Depending on what motivates you, different reverse delegation tactics work on you. Your co-workers intuitively know what kind of bait they can get you with.
You are proud of your strength and your endurance. You’re a real fighter. You are independent and you have everything under control. No weakness allowed.
- The bait: “I can’t do it. It’s too much”, “The customer only wants to deal with you anyway.”
- Your secret thrill: “Pansies, the lot of them! When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I’m going to show them how much I can get done.”
- Your response: „Fine, I’m going to do it myself!“
Everything you do must be perfect. You love numbers and details, you are precise and thorough. You give 180%.
- The bait: “I still don’t get it!”. “I don’t know if it’s airtight, can you check again?”
- Your secret thrill: “They don’t get anything done! This sloppy work is super-annoying. Only if I do it the quality’s going to be enough.”
- Your response: „Ok, I’m going to check it again“
You want to be liked by everyone. You have a hard time saying no. You always put yourself in front of the team and protect them from the big bad world outside.
- The bait: “I have so much on my plate, I can’t do this anymore.” “Can you help me?”
- Your secret thrill: “My poor team. I’m asking too much of them. Good thing that I can help them out! Only then I’m a really good boss.”
- Your response “I am glad to help! Let me take that from you.”
The Speed Demon
You are great at juggling all kinds of tasks and you can do everything at the same time with incredible speed. You really speed things up. Speed is all that counts.
- The bait: “How fast do you need this? I can get it done by the day after tomorrow”
- Your secret thrill: “But I want it NOW, the faster the better. Slowpokes … they need all day to get started.”
- Your respose: „Ok, I’m going to quickly finish that some time later by myself, it can’t wait.“
The Creature of Habit
The creature of habit is an entirely different animal than the other four types. As a founder, you are used to do everything by yourself anyway. “Hands on” is the central tenet of your culture. So, you’ll going to do it quickly by yourself, instead of leading and letting go. And the trap snaps shut.
The better you understand your personality type and the strategies that make you stumble, the easier it will be to recognize reverse delegtion and snip it in the bud. That’s when you’re ready for the real anti-reverse-delegation tools.
Defending Against Reverse Delegation: 5 Power Questions, One Mailbox, and One Consultation Hour
The defense mechanism consists of 5 questions, one mailbox, and one consultation hour.
Explain to your team that you are going to scrutinize all of their requests in the future. Whoever wants your help must prepare in advance by answering the following 5 power questions. In writing, per email.
- What exactly is the problem? If your co-workers must describe the problem, they will have to spend some more thoughts on the nature of the problem. During that process, they might already come up with a few ideas of their own.
- What have you tried so far? In this next step, they need to reflect on the approach they have been taking so far. That way, they are examining their efforts from an outside perspective. This questions also helps overcome mental blocks.
- What else could you try to do? This question challenges and mobilizes your co-workers creativity by encouraging them: “Don’t give up just yet. You surely have some better ideas“
- Which other person in the team could help you? How can you support each other in solving problems? What can you learn from the others? This way, you mobilize the team’s resources and foster the team spirit.
The final question, if nothing else helps:
- What do you need from me? Only accept if all else has failed. Even now, you don’t simply accept the task but you help the that requested our help in coming up with a solution themselves. That way, the problem-solving session becomes a learning opportunity. And now you have shared another piece of your expertise with your team!
Gather all these mails in a separate mailbox or create a mailbox for each of your co-workers. That way, you can track how many requests you receive from your co-workers and how this number changes over time.
Then, establish a regular consultation hour. Depending on the effort required and the urgency of the requests, the frequency of the meeting can be daily or 2-3 times per week. The few requests that pass the 5 question-mark can be handled during this meeting. You invite your co-workers to find a mutual solution.
Happy End – Finally, Some Time for Actually Leading People
That’s what Frank did. He briefed his team on the 5 power questions, gathered all requests, and worked on the issues together with the requesting persons.
The result was enormous: Just a month later, he only had to deal with 1-2 requests per week. Before that, the frequency was multiple requests per day. His time-savings: 8-10 hours per week. That’s a whole work day! Frank uses the consultation hours now to impart his expertise on complex problem-solving to his co-workers. The time he has gained he uses for 1:1 meetings with his co-workers. Even if they have to take on tasks for themselves: They are far happier now. Because the feeling of success when completing a difficult task on your owm is much more valuable than the short-lived relief when handing over a task. A win-win-win situation for everyone involved – for Frank, the team, and the company.
Now it’s your turn!
Take stock of your situation:
- How much time do you save, when you leave the tasks on the shoulders of your co-workers?
- Which reverse delegation trap applies to you? Which type are you and what triggers you?
- How can you make use of the defense mechanism against reverse delegation in your situation?
About the Author
With her holistic leadership model, Dorothea von Wichert-Nick helps founders and executive manager to create real and impactful growth – both for their companies and for the people within the teams. The participants of her workshops are founders and executives from growing companies, both individuals and teams. As part of the Operations Masterclass, Dorothea supports entrepeneurial talents as a mentor.
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