Don’t let your subordinates delegate work to you

June 13, 2019
Don't let subordinates delegate work to you

This article, “Don’t let your subordinates delegate work to you”,  was originally published in the Washington Business Journal as, “When Attempts to Delegate Boomerang: Watch Out.” It was part of a series of management consulting columns aptly, named Corporations on the Couch. Here, psychologist, psychoanalyst and executive coach,  Dr. Lynn Friedman, examines why employees may practice “reverse delegation” and how to effectively understand and address this behavior.

You’re a high-ranking successful administrator in your organization, which often means you’ve taken on too many jobs and done them too well.

This, in turn, has led to more assignments.

However, you believe help is at hand because you’ve hired Mary, a terrific senior person, to lighten the load.

She is qualified to assume some high-level responsibilities and manage the detail work. Mary is personable and seems to be well-liked by her colleagues.

But soon you begin to notice that she is inattentive to detail and often displays questionable judgment.

Her reports are so full of misspellings and incomplete sentences that you feel compelled to review each one before it goes out.

She annoys clients with questions she should be able to answer.

After several snafus, you feel you must carefully monitor her work.

You’ve brought this to her attention several times, and each time she responds with an appropriate level of contrition: “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I messed up.” Or: “I can’t seem to please you. I feel terrible about this.”

On the surface, she appears to take responsibility for her behavior. But the problem persists, and with each passing day your resentment increases.

Mary has successfully achieved “reverse delegation.” Instead of reducing your workload, she’s increased it, draining your valuable time and energy.

Your repeated explicit feedback meets with seemingly sincere regret and heartfelt apologies, but nothing changes. Your frustration mounts. You find yourself being impatient and short-tempered. But when Mary tells you, apologetically, that she can’t seem to please you, you wonder if you are being harsh and unfair.

Although dealing with subordinates has always been your strong suit, you experience powerlessness and self-doubt.

When Mary alienates yet another client, you lose your temper and berate her loudly in public, behavior that is out of character for you.

As a general rule, the boss sets the goals and standards in the workplace, and employees attempt to respond effectively.

When they fall short, they are concerned and take steps to improve.

But in this situation, Mary has, in effect, turned the tables.

Instead of worrying about her own performance, Mary has managed, perhaps unconsciously, to engender feelings of self-doubt in her boss.

Nearly all experienced bosses have had their Mary moment.

In recounting their experiences, even the most professional of bosses found themselves behaving uncharacteristically by expressing frustration or even rage.

Satisfaction under siege

How might one understand this state of affairs?

Unlike the typical concerned employee, Mary doesn’t take steps to identify the source of her poor performance, nor does she work on a plan to improve. Instead, Mary merely expresses regret that she is not satisfying the boss’s demands.

Her congenial response to critical feedback creates the illusion that she wants to change and is trying her best to do so. But the subtext of her message belies those assertions, conveying the impression that her boss’s expectations are unrealistic and unachievable.

As Mary characterizes the boss as “impossible to satisfy,” she shifts the focus from her inadequate performance onto the boss’s ostensibly unreasonable expectations. She asserts, “I can’t seem to please you,” as if the boss who is at fault.

No wonder the boss is left feeling irritable, helpless, powerless and even enraged.

Despite understandable frustrations in dealing with employees like Mary, a manager must recognize that the seemingly manipulative behaviors of these employees are often outside their own awareness, which makes them challenging to manage.

It can be very useful to obtain consultation from an objective colleague, a skilled human resources professional, an executive coach or an organizational consultant to develop a strategy for employees like Mary.

To maintain your perspective and emphasize the seriousness of the situation, consider having a third person attend a feedback meeting with the employee. In this meeting, provide concrete, descriptive feedback about the performance concerns.

Specify behaviors that must change. Make recommendations on ways the employee might develop the skills to address your concerns. Be explicit about how and when change will be measured, as well as the consequences that will accrue if performance does not improve. Remember to document how you are addressing performance problems.

As disconcerting as these employees can be, bear in mind that their behavior may, indeed, be driven by factors outside of their awareness.

Individuals with these struggles often grew up in difficult situations they were powerless to change.

Consequently, when faced with current challenges, they may be very uncertain about how they can change.

Direct and specific feedback can help them rectify the situation or even lead them to seek outside counseling or therapy so they can get along better in the workplace.

Those seeking executive coaching, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis are welcome to give me a call: 301.656.9650. Learn more about me and how I work, here.

Originally published on January 24, 2008, in Washington Business Journal as, “When Attempts to Delegate Boomerang: Watch Out“.

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