10 Sep 2015 15:49 IST

Reverse delegation is not the way out

Boldly taking decisions instead of falling back on a senior is something we Indians need to do more. It is certainly the path to global growth

One of my Finnish clients, let’s call him ‘A’, wrote me this e-mail the other day as a follow-up to our discussion on handling teams in India: “A phenomenon that surprises me is the attempt at reverse delegation. Even the most junior staff may come to me and request: ‘A’… we want you to do this….’ or ‘will you do that…’ Or, I might receive an e-mail saying: ‘You are requested to…’ It took me some time to learn how to deal with these situations.”

This is clearly not what A was used to back in Helsinki. In fact, this isn’t the norm in most parts of the Western work world.

But the truth is, it is something we come across repeatedly in interactions with people in corporate India. Recently, I even told the President of a small-sized company that this was something she needed to come to grips with, even resist, given her new demanding, national role.

Story 1:

Shyam didn’t feel he had enough information on the learning programme that he was to run for the Indian team working with New Zealand. He ‘referred back’ — in other words reverse delegated –- to the manager who had the conversation with the team lead there, so that the appropriate needs were addressed. This could have been sorted out if the manager had pre-equipped him with the data in a digestible, process-based format with a clear needs assessment. The manager spotted the gap, wrote out the agenda the second time around and provided the bullet points of his discussions going forward.

Story 2:

Bharathi is insecure about the database that has been an ongoing challenge in the company. She doesn’t want to own responsibility for the outcome, so she takes the easy way out, referring the restructuring back to the manager time and again.

The manager takes it on each time, as she doesn’t want to risk losing Bharathi, who she values as an employee. But that is a weak way of dealing with the issue.

Sitting down and talking about the recurring pattern of reverse delegation, asking Bharathi to take responsibility for the database that forms an important part of her customer relations role and that she is best equipped to know the nuances of, and assuring her she will not be penalised for attempting the database restructuring, is the right the way to take this forward.

Story 3:

Suresh returned the travel file to Arjun as an indirect way of telling him that he doesn’t feel the task allotted to him was suited to his profile as Vice-President.

This is an issue that has to be discussed; either Suresh has to realise that travel is an important component of the company’s success and his personal involvement, getting his hands dirty, is a good signal for the rest of the VPs, or, someone has to be appointed to assist Suresh.

Story 4:

Vimal is a habitual shirker, he seems to have made a practice of giving excuses and easing out of jobs. He says he can’t get sponsors for the event as he is busy with the seminar. He can’t follow up the pending payments either, as he is tied up with the delivery team; he can’t retrieve the client details as he still has the financial reports to file. So he is always doing something other than what he should be doing. Just because he delivers some of the goods, he gets away with key components. It was clear he needed the pink slip, instead of the manager taking the flak all the time.

There are times when it is not the employee or team member’s fault, such as in story 1 or 2. Delegation without giving enough information, or when the employees feel they will be penalised, are instances in which reverse delegation is bound to happen. The buck gets handed back to the manager. It is up to the manager to assist, empower and ensure it is not repeated.

Here are some tips on being an effective manager that I’ve learned from experience:

1) Give clear instructions

2) Give examples of how it worked and where to go for further details

3) Show the employees how they can take decisions

4) Show them where you will help

5) Provide templates and references where it is possible to empower them

6) Encourage and publicly applaud independence

7) If mistakes happen, encourage them in private to learn from experience. Refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer

Reverse delegation is acceptable temporarily where a manager can make the difference and value-add quickly, while the employee is more productive elsewhere. So, other than in such one off cases, follow the seven steps above and encourage teams to go ahead and accept responsibility for doing things the right way.

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