05/11/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Doing Your Employees' Work For Them?

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a group of 80 emerging government leaders at the Association of Government Accountants' (AGA) National Leadership Conference. During our round-table conversation, these individuals discussed a phenomenon affecting them on a consistent basis -- upward delegation.

Upward delegation is what happens when, as a leader, you assign a task to a member of your team only to have it deflected back to you immediately or at some point right before the deadline. This typically occurs with first-line supervisors and second-line managers who are managing a hard-working, overburdened team that is trying to deliver results in an increasingly fast-paced environment.

To help solve the problem of upward delegation, the emerging government leaders suggested the following clever, straight-forward ideas.

· Were you clear in assigning the task? As a federal leader, you probably have said one or all of the following statements to your team at some point: "We need to get this done ASAP." "We need our highest performers on this assignment." "I want to see the deliverable when it's best and final." Sometimes the source of an upward delegation problem is not your employees, but you. Unless you are certain that your team understands your short-hand, folks may not even be aware that you are assigning them a task. Beforeblaming your employees, consider whether you set SMART goals - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound - to give them the direction needed to succeed.

· Are they capable? Even high-performing employees can deflect tasks if they're concerned that they don't have the knowledge and skills to deliver. Because they want to stay in your good graces, however, they may be unwilling to admit that they don't know what to do. If you're having trouble with upward delegation, confirm that your employees feel comfortable with the content. Depending on the answer, be prepared to offer a mentor or coach who can walk them through the assignment in greater detail or identify training to help build their skills. Perhaps you simply need to reinforce to your employees that you're confident they have the ability to deliver on the task.

· Do they have the time? If your employees are engaging in upward delegation right before a deadline, it may be that they had the best intentions to complete the task. However, they may have taken on more than they could reasonably finish. Alternatively, your team may be uncomfortable discussing their many competing priorities before accepting an assignment. There's a simple fix. Proactively ask your employees about their priorities and other assignments the next time you delegate a task. Before finishing the meeting, you can then confirm one last time that they are not worried about other demands.

· Are they just very effective at avoiding work? After exhausting all other possibilities, you may ultimately conclude that an employee is avoiding taking on new assignments. To resolve the situation, set aside some time to review - and perhaps refine - performance expectations so there is 100-percent clarity about what it takes to succeed and so there will be accountability. You will need to be consistently firm in responding to any attempts at upward delegation. It won't be easy, but it will ultimately be worth it if you can reduce your workload and those of the high performers on your team, while also building the team's overall capacity.

Have others been successful in avoiding the trap of doing their own work and their employees' work too? If you have strategies or advice for dealing with upward delegation, please share your thoughts by leaving a comment or emailing me at

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.