Delegating Without Pass Back

You have assigned someone a task to do and are confident they are capable and know what to do.  Then, a few days later, you get an office visit or email asking you to take back all or part of that same task. Does this sound familiar?

Of course, you want to help your staff and colleagues, and there are certainly reasons and circumstances why you might accept their request.  At the same time, it is important to avoid the trap described in the classic Harvard Business Review article “Who’s Got the Monkey?” (Nov-Dec. 1999).  Authors William Oncken, Jr and Donald Weiss write about subordinates trying to pass assigned tasks back that may unduly burden the leader.

Delegation is an important leadership skill including ensuring that staff and colleagues understand and embrace their responsibilities. It is important to be clear from the beginning who is supposed to do what by when. Working to empower staff and ensure buy-in are important skills, as is recognition of situations when subordinates are attempting to inappropriately pass back responsibilities and diplomatically saying “no” when necessary and appropriate.

Another important skill is asking open-ended questions to assess what is motivating this person to try to pass back their responsibility.  Are they lacking confidence and maybe just need some encouragement?   Do they not understand what to do?   Are they overwhelmed with other tasks?  Did you as a leader not do a good enough job planning the delegation?  Once you better understand the problem, possible solutions will become clearer.

For Further Thought:   Recall situations when this has happened to you.  What actions did you take and were they effective?  Develop three specific things you could say or do the next time a staffer asks you to take on tasks you understood were their responsibilities.

Douglass Teschner