Understanding & Managing “Upward Delegation”

Understanding & Managing “Upward Delegation”


For as many years as I can remember – even starting out at the beginning of my retail career – I have been confused by the sheer volume of calls that employees make to their Store Manager, to their District Manager about the smallest, least important, and non-urgent matters. Something that I experienced as a Store Manager [and quickly fixed] and something I still see Store Directors and Department Heads struggle with. I have always been able to speak to this behavior but had no clue it had a name until, literally, three days ago [where have I been?]. But…here you have it…Upward Delegation it is.

So, What is “Upward Delegation”?

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To deal with an evolving and complex retail/corporate landscape, many organizations increase their internal complexity, adding new coordination procedures, measures, structures and decision making standards. According to Boston Consulting Group this exacts a heavy toll. They surveyed 100 US and European listed companies and found that over the past 15 years “the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals … increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%” [wow!].

The landscape in the retail field is complicated in a different way – store level payroll is tightly managed and doesn’t allow for a significant amount of overlap to work on development and guidance of the leadership support staff; field leadership is so busy with managing compliance and process that there is little time left over to develop valuable career capital and competencies in their store level leadership. So we have people in the business – running the business – who are (a) under-developed or developmentally stagnating, (b) not confident, (c) scared of risk taking for fear of corrective action, and/or (d) lacking initiative.  This results in people constantly picking up the phone or taking to email to get approval/advice/support for the most minor of challenges and delegated tasks/responsibilities.

In Retail, employees embrace upward delegation because then can then assign blame to their boss or someone with more authority than they possess if their tasks aren’t completed and they can keep their responsibilities to the bare minimum. This process is a crutch to those who lack character and initiative. These employees use this tool to excuse their inability to make decisions or take the slightest amount of risk or action, thereby absolving them from any responsibility or accountability.

There is a high-level of frustration around upward delegation in our industry. Allowing upward delegation to exist in your area of responsibility is essentially rewarding the poor performers who intentionally push work off to their managers. How many times have you heard from managers that they were on the phone all day on their day off or during vacation they took calls every day? A Director of Stores once shared with me he specifically travels out of the country while onvacation so he could escape the phone calls from his direct reports.

Time To Pull The Old Switcheroo On Upward Delegation

Some of the common motivations of reverse delegation:

  • Our desire to be seen as a “good” boss motivates us to take on the work of our team when they indicate either through words or action they don’t want to do it;
  • Not initially recognizing that requests for “help” or calls for answers are really for you to assume the responsibilities of the employees;
  • Employees hope that they will become so high-maintenance that the leader will decide it’s not worth the effort to delegate but simply just to do the task.

Here are some of the business challenges “Upward Delegation” presents to the business:

  • It rewards poor performance. Employees never need to stretch themselves;
  • It causes stagnation. In order to learn, people need a safe area to make mistakes or even fail;
  • 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 challenging, intriguing 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.

Retail employees are a pretty wily bunch. Allowing upward delegation to successfully occur, a.k.a – letting your employees extract themselves from responsibility will only encourage the problem. Here are some key phrases that you will hear right before you find yourself with a heavier workload:

These Phrases Mean “I Don’t Want To Put Effort Forth To Do This”

  • “How do I start?”
  • “What should I do next?”
  • And the frequent phone call that begins with, “I just wanted to keep you in the loop…”
  • “How can I do this and my job too?”
  • “I have never done this before…”
  • “No one will listen to me. What do I do?”
  • “I didn’t know this was part of my job…”

How To Counter Upward Delegation Through Effective Communication

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Effective delegation means that tasks/projects get delegated and stay delegated to completion. Permitting “Upward Delegation” interrupts this cycle and hinders progress. Here is where we do the “old switcheroo” on the employee attempting to delegate upward. Ask the following questions to gain an understanding of what they are challenging you on:

  • Why are you bringing this back to me?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • Who have you reached out to?
  • What is your obstacle?
  • What do you think would be the best next step?
  • If I wasn’t available – how would you proceed in order to stay on task and on time with this?

Guide them in their process, explain the meaning and purpose behind the task/project, and explain the developmental benefits and how it fits into the overall goal, and finally – stick to your guns. As a leader that has accepted assigned tasks back from your team in the past, it will be up to you to change your behavior. Here are some steps you can take to manage this business challenge:

  1. Upgrade and elevate your staff to ensure you have the right talent and team members with initiative in the right roles. Review your employees’ roles and responsibilities to ensure that tasks, decisions, and problem-solving are assigned to the lowest level possible.
  2. Understand and practice the key points of “The Art of Effective Delegation In Retail
    1. Have a plan
    2. Define objectives and standards
    3. Specify the range of discretion
    4. Involve your employees in the delegation process
    5. Clarify performance consequences
    6. Inform others that delegation has occurred
    7. When problems arise, insist that the team member recommends solutions
    8. Evaluate progress and results, and provide feedback
    9. Continue to delegate
  3. Allocate ample time to development, empowerment, and supporting autonomy of performance
  4. Create a safe place for mistakes and provide guidance when people stumble
  5. Encourage strategic risk-taking to overcome obstacles
  6. Share the context of their task and how that will factor into the aggregate results
  7. Be consistent in not tolerating any upward delegation once tasks are assigned and direction clarified

As a retail leader your time needs to be spent on high-value content and tasks. You cannot manage the business and focus on your team’s growth and development if your time is consumed with the minutiae of each and every project/assignment. Sometimes you need to set the expectation, clarify the expectation, and then let people show their professional character and initiative.

If we, as retailers, commit to building our teams with the best talent, being honest and transparent leaders, supporting and developing our team members – this common retail challenge will not not impede our progress – quite the opposite – your team members will be hungry and passionate about taking on projects and responsibility. They will be driven to deliver exceptional results for you and the rest of the team!

About

Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am passionate about and committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog around how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations.

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