Upward Delegation

How to deal with Upward Delegation

How to deal with Upward Delegation

Table of Contents


In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of avoiding upward delegation, a phenomenon often referred to as back delegation or reverse delegation. It’s a common challenge faced by many managers and leaders.


Understanding Upward Delegation

Upward delegation occurs when a task you have entrusted to an employee finds its way back to your desk, and you end up completing it. This reverse delegation, also known as monkey business, can be detrimental because it diverts your attention from your own responsibilities and tasks.


Illustrating Upward Delegation with a Scenario

To illustrate this concept, consider a scenario where you assigned an important task to Emily. She was tasked with preparing the final report for Project Alpha, a project she is well-versed in and possesses all the necessary information for. Given your trust in her capabilities, you both agreed that she would provide a brief update once the report was completed.

However, on a busy day when you’re en route to a crucial meeting, Emily approaches you casually. She says, “Hey, I’m glad I caught you. I’m working on that Project Alpha report, but I’m hitting a roadblock. You know the project inside out. Could you quickly review what I’ve written and maybe add some key points?”

In this moment, you’re mentally elsewhere, already focused on your impending meeting. While you’re undoubtedly an expert on Project Alpha, you’re not inclined to handle it at that precise moment. So, you think, “How can I get Emily off my plate as swiftly as possible?” You respond with, “Sure, Emily, hand it over. I’ll address it later.”

Oops! You’ve just taken on another task that you originally delegated to your employee.


The Pitfalls of Reverse Delegation

Many leaders fall into the reverse delegation trap, akin to what was discussed in the 1974 Harvard Business Review article titled “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” The analogy here equates tasks with monkeys: whoever carries the task bears the responsibility to nurture and care for it, consuming time and resources. When a leader delegates a task, they transfer the monkey to the employee. However, if the employee successfully returns the task to the leader, the monkey once again resides on the leader’s shoulder.

If this pattern persists, with multiple employees returning tasks, the leader becomes overwhelmed, akin to a zookeeper tending to a plethora of demanding monkeys. This overload hampers the leader’s ability to focus on their core responsibilities, turning them into a bottleneck for their team.


Why Does Reverse Delegation Occur?

Several factors can trigger reverse delegation. Employees may feel time pressure or take on more than they can handle, leading them to offload some of their work. Alternatively, employees may lack confidence in their abilities or feel overwhelmed as a task evolves beyond their capabilities.

In such instances, employees do need support, but that doesn’t mean you should assume their responsibilities.


Effective Management Strategies

Assuming you’ve delegated the task appropriately and ensured your employee possesses the required competence, it’s crucial to guide them through challenges without taking the task back. When they encounter difficulties, engage with questions that promote their problem-solving skills:

  • Time Consideration for Every Task: Carefully evaluate the commitments you make. Don’t engage in less important tasks solely for the purpose of pleasing others or boosting your own ego. Respect the value of your time and allocate it wisely.
  • Accountability with Each Task: When you take on a task, remember that you become answerable to others, regardless of their position within the organizational hierarchy. Recognize that when you reclaim a delegated task, you effectively allow your employee to supervise you.
  • Preventing a Chain Reaction: Be aware that accepting a task returned by an employee inadvertently reinforces their behavior. This can lead to a cycle of reverse delegation. To maintain control, consistently resist the temptation to entertain upward delegation and avoid enabling your employees’ reliance on it.



Mastering upward delegation is essential for successful leadership. By empowering your employees to tackle their responsibilities independently and guiding them through challenges, you can create a more efficient and productive work environment while keeping your focus on strategic tasks. Remember “Delegate your tasks and elevate your leadership.”!!!

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