Upward delegation causes leaders to work for their employees

Do you sometimes feel you are doing more of your employees’ work than they are? Or have you stopped delegating to employees so as not to meet their groans of displeasure? If so, you’ve likely been so permissive and supportive with your employees that you’ve sent the message through your behavior, that you work for them. Upward delegation is on the rise because leaders have some notion that to be a “good” leader, they have to take on their employees’ work if they are struggling, overwhelmed, or they just don’t like doing it. While trying to be good, they become ineffective.

Most leaders enjoy taking responsibility and don’t shy away from hard work. What they do shy away from, however, is saying no to employees when they come and ask for help with some task they can do themselves. Because most leaders find it easier to do it themselves, they jump in and rescue their employees, feeling pleasure because they were able to help. The employee feels relieved because they don’t have to struggle. That temporary feeling helps the leader to convince themselves they did something right.


If we really look at our own agenda when allowing upward delegation, we will find that we helped to make it easy on ourselves while abdicating responsibility for developing our employees. We chose momentary personal efficiency while contributing to longer-term organizational dysfunction.

What is Upward Delegation?

Upward delegating is when an employee brings a problem or issue to their manager to solve, having everything they need to solve it themselves. It is done in an effort to get the manager to do what has been tasked to the employee under the pretext of needing help or guidance. Of course, there are times when employees really need your help or feedback. It happens. But when you have a line up outside of your door you have to consider what you are doing to contribute to this employee behavior and what you will do to delegate tasks and responsibility for problem-solving them to your employees.

Helping and supporting employees is one of many aspects of the role of a leader. And the human impulse to help anyone struggling is human nature. When we help employees when they really don’t need it, we take away the opportunity for them to practice and develop. We aren’t helping, we are rescuing, fostering dependence, and creating a codependent relationship with our employees.

Saving the day for the employee may also be a distraction from your own, more challenging work. Many leaders who have difficulty getting out of the weeds are avoiding their own difficulties which don’t make them feel as useful or productive as rescuing employees by doing something twice as good or fast as they might have done it given time and coaching. Alternately, you might take too much responsibility for your employee’s feelings and you help them because you don’t want to see them struggle. Whatever the reason a leader allows upward delegation, it ultimately costs the manager time and the organization money.

Employees seeking approval, asking for advice and/or support when they have established expertise and competence costs the leader, employee, and the organization. Allowing upward delegation has the following costly impacts:

  • Failure to develop employees and build bench strength
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of initiative
  • Rewards poor performance.
  • Creates bottlenecks.
  • Poor employee retention.
  • Manager burn-out
  • Keeps leaders in the weeds
  • Fosters employee entitlement
  • Fosters dependence
  • Negatively impacts productivity and the bottom line

What to do?

To be an effective leader you need to develop delegation skills and stop allowing employees to delegate up. Sounds easy, but there are emotional and logical reasons why employees say yes. It starts with exploring yourself and setting performance goals for yourself and your employees.

Here are some things to do to reverse the costs of upward delegation:

Explore Your Agenda

Becoming aware of why you allow employees to delegate up to you and your agenda is the first step in changing your behavior. Ask yourself, “Am I allowing the upward delegation because it is more efficient for me to do it myself?” “Do I love rescuing employees and being the hero?” “Does it meet my need to be in control or validate my expertise?” “Am I afraid they will be upset with me if I don’t do their work for them?” We all have unconscious agendas and getting to know why you are so willing to do your employees’ work for them is worth exploring. Recognize the fears you harbor that may cause you to become permissive and allow them to upward delegate.

Don’t Blame the Employees

Often, leaders will blame employees for being too needy or act irritated when they interrupt them. You teach employees that it’s okay to interrupt you when you stop what you are doing when they walk into your office. If you make them feel they are entitled to do it, why wouldn’t they? Take responsibility for your contribution to the issue, change your behavior and manage your employees by creating boundaries around your time. If you haven’t given your employees clear messaging regarding work management and problem-solving, it’s time to shift the flow of delegation by clarifying your expectations.

Establish A Closed Door Policy

This is the reverse of the popular open-door policy that leaders have been encouraged to adopt. While admirable, when an open-door policy is not handled effectively it enables employees to delegate work and bring their problems to you disrupting your workflow and concentration. Establish a closed-door policy that states you are available by appointment only, giving employees access to your calendar. If you close your door, employees know they can disturb you only in an emergency. Otherwise, they must book a time for discussing work with you. Or a variation, stating hours when you are Closed and Open to discuss employee issues is helpful to setting boundaries and ensuring you get your work done. Employees become more discerning about what they bring to you when they learn they can’t just come in and expect you to drop what they are doing to take care of them.

Let Employees Find the Solutions Themselves

As leaders, we have to make sure employees know how to do the tasks of their role. What many leaders overlook is teaching employees how to problem solve and generate options when they run into barriers. Instead of telling them how to solve the problem, resist the impulse to do so and shift to asking questions that will help them think it through. For example, “What solutions have you thought of so far?” “What else might you try to ensure you meet your objective?” Or, “How might you prioritize your work to not feel overwhelmed?” invites them to find their own solutions. If they are unable to solve the issue, offer some tips and send them off to try. Don’t take on the work or problem as a way of making them feel better. It may take time for employees to develop the skill of problem-solving and thinking things through before coming to you. When you are clear you aren’t going to rescue them, employees will soon only interrupt you for problems that require your expertise. 

Reverse the Upward Flow

There are valid occasions when an employee requires your assistance or instruction. But most of the time, the issue isn’t urgent or something employees can resolve on their own. A simple, transactional way to deal with an employee who wants you to do their work is to refuse to take it on. If an employee approaches you and says, “I’m not sure how I should deal with this?” shift to ask saying, “What makes most sense to you?” Or “What’s your plan so far?” You can facilitate them coming to a solution, but don’t be the solution by doing it yourself.

The Many Symptoms of Permissive Leadership

Permissive leadership has many ways of presenting itself as it is a result of a developmental gap in the person leading. Allowing upward delegation is only one of the many leadership behaviors that cause organizational dysfunction and needs to be approached as a systemic issue, not just focusing on the behavior of the leader. As with all dysfunctions, there needs to be clarity of goals, expectations and supportive systems to align behavior behind.

While it takes more time and energy to shift the delegation flow, ultimately everyone benefits from the above approaches on how to deal with upward delegation. Your employees are challenged and engaged in thinking about their work, you have more time to focus on your work, and the company isn’t paying you to do the job of an employee a level or two down.


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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