Delegation is supposed to go downward. But surprisingly often it goes upward, to the boss.

That’s not always unwelcome. Take my father’s grocery-butcher shop. Although some customers preferred the other butcher to cut their meat or the cashier to pick out their vegetables from their phone orders, most people expected “Mr. Bennie” to take care of things, and his staff involved him in everything. The Michael Connelly mystery I am listening to is like that: Everything ultimately gets decided and handled by lawyer Mickey Haller. Small businesses and professional services often run that way.

But in a hectic knowledge-worker world, delegation is supposed to be downward. Years ago, the continual exceptions in offices were captured in a classic 1974 Harvard Business Review article, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? It continues today.

For example, you walk into your office, eager to prepare for an early-morning meeting with a major supplier. But a colleague stops you. She is in charge of planning the forthcoming staff retreat and has a list of the possible food choices. Could you look at them and decide before noon?

You hit your own office, but before you can delve into the file on the supplier your administrative assistant pokes his head in the door. “Boss, we have a problem,” he says. You had asked him to clear up a complaint from a customer. But the issue is thornier than it seemed, he insists. Could you call the customer today?

In both cases, “the monkey” has been passed back to you. What wears managers down – and keeps them from completing their own work – is when the burdens of subordinates always seem to end up on the manager’s back.

You passed the metaphorical monkey onto your colleague’s back when you told her to plan the retreat. She passed it back to you when she asked for your decision on the food. The same with the administrative assistant: You told him late yesterday afternoon to fix the problem, passing the monkey to him. Whammo. You have it back again early the next morning, sucked in by that deceptive phrase, “Boss, we have a problem.”

And that happens, for many of us, repeatedly during the day, despite our best intentions to delegate. Back and forth the monkey goes, when in order for you to drive your organization forward you need to be able to focus on your own work and have the staff handle what has been delegated.

In the article by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass, the manager realizes the problem. When a staff member next comes to him to hand back an assigned task, he breaks the habit. “At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem,” he notes.

“When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in – on your back. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be, and which of us will make it.

“In those rare instances when the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone.”

It may be hard to find those words in the frenzy of a day, particularly if, like me, you grew up with a different model of operating – in my case, G&M Meat Market. In a recent blog post on the dangers of upward delegation, Gene Morrissy, a partner with RHR International, points to other psychological factors involved that you may need to address, such as subordinates’ fear of being punished for making a mistake; a culture that encourages being too risk-averse; or the leader that loves solving problems or feeling needed by the team. His recommendations include that team members should come prepared to identify not only the problem but also the specific involvement they need from the leader, what they have already tried, at least two possible solutions, and their recommendation as to the best alternative.

Be aware of the monkey. It may be on your back more than you realize.


  • What have you learned about your own management and judgment of others from the story of Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who was the surprise winner of a riding for which she was parachuted in for the 2011 federal election, and who is now celebrated as a success story after being named NDP House Leader? Are you too quick to dismiss potential, particularly unconventional potential? How could you spot someone who doesn’t fit your hiring criteria by a country mile but has smarts, resilience and determination to succeed? Indeed, do you spend too much time on criteria that obscure what’s really important? How can you avoid bandwagons in your organization that, as with the avalanche of attacks on Ms. Brosseau in 2011, cry out for some perspective and alternative thinking?
  • Entrepreneur Seth Godin says the hard part isn’t coming up with a new idea – t’s falling out of love with the old idea.
  • Bob Hoffman, who was CEO of two ad agencies, says Monty Python would have been the greatest ad agency in history. Ads need inspired silliness – not stupidity – that subversively draws attention.