It’s a Typical Management Problem

How many times have your directs come back to you for help after you’ve delegated work to them? How many times have you found yourself taking back delegated work? Well you’re not alone. This is a typical management problem. It’s natural for employees to turn to their boss when they need help with a problem. You know how to solve the problems because you used to do the job before you delegated it to your employee. But if you delegate work and then end up solving all the problems, then you’ve failed at work delegation. Successful bosses don’t solve employees problems for them. Successful bosses are masters at given their problems to employees and then encouraging their employees to find their own solutions. This is how you avoid reverse delegation.

Tip: Improve your delegation manager skills. Is your delegation working for you? Take the Work Delegation Checkup to find out.

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It’s only natural to want to help your employees. But that can create more problems than it solves. The more you help your employees the more you are ‘training’ them to keep bringing you their problems. It’s a typical Pavlovian response scenario. When you solve employees problems for them, what you end up with is:

  1. Your employees start to bring their own problems to you to solve,
  2. You end up with more work and become the bottle-neck,
  3. Your employees don’t take ownership for your solutions
  4. Your employees don’t learn the skills and confidence they need to solve their own problems, and
  5. Your employees bring you more problems to solve

Tip: It’s much easier to train your employees to solve their own problems. When you do, you will find that they bring you fewer and fewer problems.

You Need to Fight Your Own Natural Tendencies

If you’re a High D or High I personality type then you just want to get to the solution. You know you can solve the problem quicker and so you have a natural tendency to solve the problem yourself. If you’re a (Supportive) High S personality type then you have a desire to support your employees. This means your natural tendency is to help your employees by solving their problems for them. And if you’re an Analytical (High C) personality type then it’s your natural tendency to want to solve problems.  (If you don’t know what that is, you need to DISC. It’s how managers deal with diversity:

But the number one management principle is that staff are there to help - that’s why you employ staff. When an employee comes to you for help with a problem the first thing to understand is that it’s their problem - not yours.

Managers Need to be Supportive and Demanding

Now some managers are good at being demanding, they put pressure on their employees to meet high expectations. This is good at producing results in the short term but ends up alienating and losing employees. Other managers are good at being supportive, their employees are faithful to them but these managers aren’t good at encouraging their employees to high expectations.

The best managers are both supportive and demanding at the same time. To avoid reverse delegation be demanding in insisting that your employees solve their own problems. And be supportive to coach them through the problems they need to solve. You can do this with an under appreciated manager skill which is Active Listening.

Use Active Listening to Get Your Employees to Solve Their Own Problems

Here’s an example of a typical management problem. Your employee Sue has encountered a technical problem and is unable to complete a delegated task. Instead of solving the problem for Sue or telling her how to solve the problem. Use Active Listening to listen to your employee and guide them to find their own solution.

The dialogue looks something like this “Yes I understand that you’re experiencing difficulties - it is a challenging task. Doing the job comes with the responsibility to find solutions for your problems. I’d like you to tell me how you’re going to fix this issue and I’m happy to give you some feedback on whether I think that will work or not. In addition if you like we can put this onto your development plan. Because if you learn these skills you won’t have these problems in the future”

Secret Ninja Manager Skills

BOOM! And that’s why I call this “Secret Ninja Manager Skills.” The employee has come to you with a problem. You’ve turned it back on them. You’re being both demanding and supporting them to get better. In a super quick way.

Addressing some of the FAQs around Avoiding Reverse Delegation

Managers do reverse delegation because they are concerned that things will go wrong if they leave the job in their employees hands. Here are some responses to the most common concerns:

What if They Can’t Do It?

People are incredibly resourceful. They might not know how to fix something the way you would but you’d be surprised at what a sufficiently motivated workforce can achieve. As an extreme thought experiment. Imagine their lives depended on it. Would they still not be able to fix it?

What if it’s Inefficient?

So you can fix it in 5 minutes and it takes your staff member an hour. So the maths says that it’s better for you to fix it – right? Well no because you can’t fix everyone’s problems. All those 5 minutes add up until you can’t do your job. And if this is part of their job then it’s an investment for them to learn how. You can be sure they will get better and faster.

What if it Goes Wrong?

I totally understand. You’ve got high standards, you’re smart and you don’t want stuff to go wrong. I can’t guarantee you that this won’t go wrong. In fact I can virtually guarantee that this WILL go wrong at some point. If you do this 10 times I bet that maybe as many as 5 will have sub optimal results the first time. By this I mean you could’ve done a better job yourself. And let's not pretend, there will be some things you just have to do yourself. The first few times you do this, you will not be very good! Practice to get better. Even if all that happens is that you avoid some of your problems.

But there’s always the chance that something will be the exception. As they say, no risk, no reward. If you’re not prepared to take the risk then this isn’t for you. Consider whether or not you think the rewards are worth the costs

Is the Investment Worth it?

The vision to work towards is that active listening promotes ownership. When your employees take ownership for their work, then you will have fewer problems, not more. In your opinion, what do you think the immediate and long-term benefits will be? In your time and money.


As a manager, having an open door policy with your staff will help build better communication. But instead of solving your employees problems for them, it’s better to train your employees to solve their own problems.

PS: Want to avoid those ad-hoc interruptions that take time and focus away from your own responsibilities? Then follow this weekly one-on-one process. Your one on one meetings with employees are the best place to practice your active listening skills.

Solving employee problems through active listening is a secret ninja management technique that you can use to maintain calm and avoid problems. Do it right and you’ll not only get your time back but you’ll also:

  • Build employee skills and motivation,
  • Promote employee accountability,
  • Encourage employees to take ownership and solve their own problems and,
  • Increase employee creativity.

Avoiding problems is a great way to achieve Management Zen. So the next time your employee comes to you with a problem, Keep Calm and Give it Back.

Next Steps

Delegation is an essential manager skill. But it’s one of those important life skills they don’t teach you in university. The best way to delegation success is to follow a tried and tested delegation process. That’s why I made the short, online delegation training course: Delegation Essentials. This course will provide you with proven, easy-to-implement and practical actions steps for:

  • Identifying what to delegate,
  • Identifying who to delegate to,
  • Top delegation mistakes to avoid, and,
  • How to make the delegation - right down to the right words to use

And you can even earn a certificate for your resume.