Fixing the Upward Delegation Problem

Upward delegation occurs when work gets pushed up to the highest level in the organization that will accept it. Are your senior people frequently stepping in to “save the day”? Are deadlines missed while juniors wait for approvals? Are you hearing complaints of boredom from your staff while you are running around with your hair straight back? It could be that work is being delegated up.

While it might feel good for the ego and ensure that the task is done perfectly every time, the less experienced staff miss the opportunity to learn through trial and error. Plus, with the boss earning more, the task just costs more to complete. Worst, though, is that capacity to do all work becomes capped at the available time of the manager, who becomes overworked and overwhelmed despite having juniors available.

Is It Really So Bad?

If a leader is trying to grow the company, the problems with upward delegation are numerous:

  • It rewards poor performance. Employees never need to stretch themselves or they think others above will catch mistakes.
  • It causes stagnation. In order to learn, people need permission to make mistakes.
  • It penalizes initiative. Employees that enjoy a good challenge do not get the chance if the leader, or a more senior employee, takes on the most complex, interesting work available.
  • It hurts retention. The best employees will go elsewhere to find a more challenging environment.
  • It harms morale. Managers burn-out as they become increasingly responsible for more work than they can get done.


Upward delegation happens for a variety of reasons, the most insidious of which is just old-fashioned habit. “We’ve always done it this way” in other words. Consider what this leader had to say:

In the old days, when we were small, we all just pitched in and did whatever needed to be done. Today, no one does anything unless they’re asked. I just don’t understand it. If I want it done right, I have to follow up all the time. So, I just do it myself. It’s faster that way.”

Upward delegation is entrenched here. There is a range of possible employee reactions to this ongoing situation:

  • The leader likes to do this task and who am I to stop him?
  • Great! Someone else is doing it. Now I can do something I prefer.
  • The leader thinks I’m incompetent.

Regardless of how they feel about it though, the outcome is usually that they stop perceiving this activity as their responsibility. They have effectively delegated easier work up to a higher, more expensive employee—perhaps even the leader.

As the leader, you are the last stop on the upward delegation line. You must protect your time because you have certain tasks that no other person in your company can or should be doing.

Just because you know how to do many of the technical tasks that make your company run smoothly, it doesn’t mean that you should do them personally. While you have the skill and expertise acquired from doing them many times yourself, remember you also benefited from the guidance of others along the way, or learned valuable lessons through trial and error.

To be an effective leader and grow your company you need to develop a different, managerial skill: delegating down. To delegate down, you must be prepared to give someone else a chance to learn.

Be a mentor, not a meddler. Even when dealing with particularly challenging tasks or complicated responsibilities like financial controls and project management: delegate. Do the work that only you, as leader, can do.

Delegate Down: Begin the Fix Today

Controlled delegation down, starting with small steps, is the most effective cure for a case of upward delegation. Is there one task that you can assign to someone else, today? Even delegating ordering the office supplies or refilling of the photocopier starts you on the right path.

Next, create a log of all tasks you are able to reassign and check in on them—frequently at first, but less so as the days pass.

Even if you aren’t comfortable with delegating yet, consider which tasks potentially could be delegated given the right conditions. Record your activity for one week. At the end of the week highlight any of the tasks that could have been delegated, were things different. Now, make a list of what those different conditions were. Can one of these be brought into place soon? If yes, the good news is…you’re on your way.

As you become an expert at delegating down, eventually, you will want to bring in some outside expertise to develop a comprehensive organizational matrix. With this tool in hand you’ll be able to formally delegate down and properly assign all of the key tasks in your company. It’s a powerful accountability tool to arm a leader with, especially one that is mindful of making smart choices around doing the “right work” themselves, to stay better focused on growing the company.

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Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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