Avoiding Reverse Delegation as a Manager


Delegation is sometimes called an art. If that is true, it is the art of communication, mixed with the art of encouragement. In the delegation process, a task, project, or job is given to an employee or a team. As manager, you will certainly front load your staff on the requirements and time constraints of the job. There will be some assessment and feedback about the skills needed for the work, how the staff will plan the approach, share the load, and gather materials.

After brainstorming, the team will set their goals. The steps or the objectives will be written down beneath each goal to clarify exactly the expectation, and to set into the plan a point at the completion of each objective to check in with the manager. Monitoring is usually a quick check by a manager to make sure the employees are moving forward in a timely manner, and their work is of good quality. It also gives the employee a peek into the mind of the manager. The staff wants to understand the manager's expectations, what she values and how she sees and listens to them.

One problem that can occur during this process is when an employee tries to hand back the work given to him by a manager. An employee who lacks in confidence, creativity, motivation, leadership, or desire might try to get the manager to do the work for him, be right there with him through each step, or get it reduced. Making accommodations to assignments for an employee who requires it because of various conditions, physical or mental, permanent or temporary, does happen. However, when an employee tries to move his own assigned work from his own shoulders to another's, often back to the manager, it is a problem. It is a problem that requires immediate attention. What the employee is doing is delegating the work given him, back to the manager or to another employee. It is called reverse delegation.

Focus Points:

1. Be prepared for reverse delegation by knowing your employees well.

Employees who are slow to step out and take responsibility usually fall into two categories. The first group are more introverted, shy, or less confident about themselves, or their work, or with interaction. The second group includes employees who are simply not motivated to do the work, feel overloaded, or like to be in control.

The only way to be prepared for this is to get to know your employees. When you know your staff, you will be able to address the situations in creative ways, before reverse delegation is used on you. It will be important to give guidance, support, encouragement, and training to staff who lack confidence. These employees often need to be reminded of work they have accomplished in the past. Sometimes just having a conversation and recalling past work will put the staff member into a mindset that will urge them on. Remind them often of the skills they possesses, and the skills for which they were hired. Consider training, putting them with a mentor, or even pulling in a therapist to help.

When you get to know your staff, you will also become aware of the type of employee whose talk is big, but whose motivation and desire to work is small. If you have to deal with these kinds of employees, it becomes more important than ever to create a plan for monitoring objectives more often. This employee will not be a preferred member of any team. Others will know them for what they are and how they work.

Another employee who fits into this second category is the one who likes to be in charge and play the power game. Again they are not a team player and create situations where they begin to run the show and tell others what to do. Often they will assume the same attitude with their managers and try to pull them into their power play, and push them into doing part or all of their work. This worker might bully or complain, and always has an excuse.

A manager cannot afford to ignore such behaviors. An employee who takes on such a roll demands training to learn how to work as a team player. Until this kind of worker can see themselves from the perspective of others, they won't be able to change. It will take time to turn them around to enable them to use their skills. A manager will need to have conversations that are not confrontational, but personal, to discover the reasons for such behavior. Often it is deep seated, ingrained over a long period of time. If the employee is able to work with a manager to make changes in their behavior, through mentoring and training, it will have a wide reaching positive influence on the company.

When a manager is able to turn a difficult situation around without having to resort to punitive measures or dismissal of the employee, all employees are encouraged. They see the support management is willing to put into saving a team member's job as a very positive move. It is difficult to recognize these unsuitable behaviors in the hiring process. Again, when you deal with personal habits that disrupt the work place processes, it may take someone who can work with the employee on a more personal basis, such as a social skills professional, or a therapist.

2. A manager has to understand how to avoid being drawn into reverse delegation.

Be aware as you work throughout your day, giving guidance, training, and monitoring others' work. Employees who practice reverse delegation may either look helpless, or be treading on the feet of others. These staff members who cannot make decisions, are unable to begin their work, or stumble back and forth between two directions. The staffers who like control will be observed talking over others, exhibiting rude body language, and putting themselves in the personal space of others.

The employees who appears helpless, think you will eventually come to them, take their hand, and work with them. They've done this before and it works. However, that is exactly what you cannot do. If you do, then you are enabling them. Stand strong and wait them out.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Delegation Skills course?

Only approach this kind of person when the monitoring dates come up. Then go over and say something like, "I am so excited to see your work." If they have none, you will look surprised and have a conversation with them. If you can, through some informal talking, get them to give you some insight into why they have not been able to do the work, then you will have a place to start. During this event, you must act as though you are really surprised. They must understand that you did expect them to do the work, that you have faith in them and their skills. This puts the situation into practical terms. This employee must understand that you not only expected them to be responsible, but that the trust you have in them has been damaged. In this way, it turns the problem into a fundamental part of the working relationship. It is about more than just the work

It is important at this point to give wait time for this employee to voice exactly what the problems are. You must listen. When they have gotten to the place where they can verbalize the problem, only then can change begin.

You can help them figure out how to solve their problem, but do not do their work. Definitely make a comment on the monitor form about the incomplete work and document how the two of you decided to work on the main issues. Then you start again. Say things like, "I know you have the skills for this." Eventually, through this problem-solving routine, they will figure it out -- or not. Meanwhile, you have evaluated their performance and documented it in a constructive manner.

To avoid being drawn into reverse delegation with a "player" or a bully, the manager is required to use redirection and ignoring. The first time this employee comes to try and pull you into their work by saying things like, "Hey, Joe. What would you do here? You did that project last year and it was similar. How would you direct this, Joe?" He will appeal to your ego, your sense of being a supporter and encourager.

You have to be smarter than he is. Prepare and practice saying things like, "Get creative Bill. I'll meet with you on the monitor date we set and discuss it then." Then walk away. Let him know that you expect him to be able to do the work, and will not talk to him about it until the date that has been set. Sometimes the best help is to do nothing.

What you might really want to do is to take away the work and give it to somebody else. Don't do it. You cannot do that for a couple of reasons. You need to make an effort to save any employee that is on staff, and also, if you do need to dismiss him eventually, documentation that you did make such an effort will give you credibility. You have to respectfully remind both kinds of employees that you have every confidence in their abilities to do the work for which they were hired. Stay positive, respectful, expectant, and be stronger than they are in this game of wills.

3. If a manager takes preventative measures, reverse delegation might not occur.

Reverse delegation is a behavioral technique used by someone who is trying to control the situation. They have gotten where they are, because they have gotten others to do their work. Apparently your company hired this person for some reason. Go back to their files and find those reasons. Get to know this person, and try to see what is behind their need for control. It is probably an effort to cover up a weakness or lack of confidence. The point is to discover the weakness together with them through conversation and informal discussion. Then you have to guide this person into facing the issue and direct them toward experiences that will strengthen them.

Preventative measures are easier to take than an interruption of the job. These kind of staff members must be given more stringent guidelines to stay within, and it will not help any if you support what they do, or enable them. In a business or organization, each person is expected to grow, improve in what they do, and contribute to the company, not distract from its productivity.

Your job, as manager, is to counsel this employee about such expectations. The employee will step up to the position, or be placed in another, or be dismissed. Some employees need reminded about this fact often.


Mr. Manager has a small office of 10 employees. It's a good team, but there are two staff members who require some specific behavioral techniques in order to work at their peak. One is Ms. Jones, who is rather meek and seeks out others to ask what they think of her work. This is not only disruptive to her own job, but to others. She seems to need lots of pats on the back.

Mr. Manager has sent her to a training course to increase confidence and also to one on how to communicate effectively. He is seeing improvement, but recently he assigned a task to her that seems to have brought back things he thought she had overcome. He was unable to walk through the production area without her actually coming over and taking his arm to lead him to see her work and give an opinion.

Mr. Manager was surprised, so he was unprepared to ignore her. When he went over to see her work, he refused to give an opinion. Instead he asked her to give him an assessment of the work. If she said it was not good, then he merely replied that she should correct it. If she said she thought she was doing well, he congratulated her and went on his way. He kept his comments without criticism, comment, or opinion. He refused to interact with her except to get her to say aloud what she thought. His thinking was that eventually she should learn the art of "self-talk" to work through her doubts.

The other employee was a young man who was overconfident. He was very creative, clever, and knowledgeable, but worked harder to get another person to work on his task than he did at completing it himself. Mr. Manager proceeded to assign him to a part of the work area that was away from others, making it more difficult for him to bring others into his conversation, which was his method for fishing.

As this employee worked, he would have to totally leave his area to seek out help. Mr. Manager watched for this and every time he did come out of the area, Mr. Manager would say, "Hey Pete, I've noticed you have some trouble focusing on your work and because you are so good I wanted to make sure you had a quiet space away from others. I want you to try and work with the door shut." Then he shuts the door and says, "See you at lunch." He avoids confrontation, accusation, or disruption on the work floor. Later he will call him in for an informal discussion about how his work is going and assess it at that time.

Note : It isn't that a manager should avoid confrontation with employees about behavior that does not benefit the work, but that confrontation is done respectfully, with a plan, and in a way that others are not disturbed by it. The manager has to be supportive at all times.

Set up your physical or computerized notebook:

In your notebook, take time to compile some phrases that might be effective with the person who uses this technique, however unconsciously. Actually you should have two lists -- one for the person who works very hard trying to do nothing, thereby getting others to do their work and making excuses, and another for the bully who works to push others into doing their work.

These phrases need to be encouraging, respectful, but pointedly firm. "I know you can do this, because you've had the training, and you are very smart." "Check back with me on the date we've set. I'll discuss it then."


1. Can you explain two kinds of reverse delegation?

2. How quickly can you come up with a reply for each?

3. As a manager, do you think you have the personality to be respectful in this situation?

4. Can you see yourself dealing with reverse delegation effectively now, or will it take practice?

If you are unsure of these considerations, go back and review the material.