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Upward Delegation

Upward delegation

I belong to a family of workaholics. Not necessarily something to be proud of.
We worked very hard but not always smartly. I could rarely get home before midnight. My brothers and I slogged it out. We enjoyed this feeling of stretching ourselves to the maximum of our potential.

Come to think of it, It's not a bad thing to work hard, but it's got to have meaning. It is also quite irrelevant if the quality of life is missing.

The way I was working and managing felt like I was on a nonstop treadmill. With each passing day, I experienced ever increasing workloads. It felt akin to living in a kind of happy prison where I actually enjoyed the hard labour. I have since discovered that my situation was not unique.

I knew I should find a better way. What could that be?
Could there not be abetter way to grow the company and ourselves without being so frustrated.
When you are young you have boundless energy. I was far from tired but kept asking, should there not be more to life? How long will this be my lifestyle?

I think it was the year of 1983 or so. I once came upon a book which had a funny title. Maybe it was one of those ‘One Minute Manager’ books. Out of curiosity I purchased it. I wish I could remember the name, so that I could read the book again and share it with you. I do however recall that there was an interesting anecdote in it, from which I learnt an important lesson. I would like to share that lesson with you.

It was an example and it went something like this;
The anecdote involves two people let's call them Mangesh and his boss Gagandeep.

One day Mangesh enters Gagandeep's office, and says "I would like to speak with you, I have a problem."
Gagan listens to his problem and responds" Ok, I heard you. Now what do you want?"
Mangesh says “I don't know what to do"
Gagan responds "Even I don't know what to do. I think the organisation cannot afford the overhead of having two people not knowing what to do about a problem.”

Mangesh gets a jolt, apologises and makes a quick exit. He is angry and confused as he leaves her office. It was an important wake up call to Mangesh.
He returns to his office, thinks about what transpired, the problem he has on hand, and then works out possible solutions.

Mangesh returned to Gagan's office later that day, and the whole thing repeated itself, except that Mangesh now has three alternative solutions and now wants Gagan's opinion on them.

She asks "which solution do you prefer?"
Mangesh responds that “I prefer the second alternative."
Gagan says "I would probably go with that solution too."
The meeting between Mangesh and Gagan ended, quickly and efficiently.

I took two lessons from this little parable.

  1. First, people must do their own jobs and not be encouraged to resort to upward delegation. They must address the problem as best as possible on their own rather than dumping it on someone else.
  2. Secondly, people must take responsibility for their own actions rather than making someone else, particularly the boss responsible unnecessarily.

    The author of the book went on to give a long explanation and all that other chutney that they dish out in many of these management books.

    Many people actually make good bosses. They are really smart and hardworking.
    Unfortunately as the boss, you come to believe that, you are the smartest guy in the world, especially if you also own the company.
    This situation is worse when you are young, because you are looking for problems to smash and mountains to conquer and all that other nonsense. After all one of the signs of youth is to do things the difficult way.

    When I read the little portion in that book, I got to thinking. As a young energetic, sincere owner- manager I was the perfect sucker, particularly with my open door policy.

    Am I suggesting that people should not work hard?
    Maybe I am suggesting that I work smarter, rather than as a beast of burden carrying increasingly more load and nonsense which should be carried by other team members.

    Most of these people draw a pretty decent salary to discharge those responsibilities.

    I started observing my own behaviour, and I was shocked at my analysis.
    I had an open door policy, so anyone could walk in to my office at any time. This was great for dynamic action and communication.

    The problem was getting into all sorts of communications which need not have involved me in the first place.
    People would tell me that they had a problem but could not solve it, and I would say "I will look into it", suddenly it was my assignment and responsibility.
    My staff would often leave for their homes before me and here I was burning the midnight oil.

    Let me give you an example.
    We had imported a large piece of Soviet equipment and the equipment was giving us serious problems. The engineers had come down and had dismantled the giant of a machine to investigate.
    The engineers needed a large measuring instrument to measure the diameter on a shaft. Unfortunately, we did not have such a large measuring instrument.

    My maintenance engineer came to me with the problem and I said “I don’t know anyone and I am stuck.”
    I responded, "I will look into it, and locate the large instrument from someone or the other"

    I jumped to this new task and was making enquiries, when I looked out from my office window and I saw Mr. Ramanathan, our maintenance chief leaving for the day. I recalled the part I read in the book and decided to try a different approach. I called him back to my office.

    "Ramanathan, why can't you locate a large micrometer for the Russian engineers?"
    "Sorry Sir, I don't know anybody."
    "Why don't you simply ring up the quality in charge of several of these big companies in Pune and speak to them. Just look who has such an instrument and I will then speak with the General Manager of that company and request them that if we could possibly borrow their instrument"
    “OK, Sir”.

    Feeling pleased with myself I allowed myself the luxury to leave on time for home that day, surprising both the family and myself by arriving home in time for dinner.
    Poor Mr. Ramanathan was late for his dinner.

    Next day by noon, Mr. Ramanathan had located three companies that had what we needed, along with the names and contact details of the concerned General Manager. I called the concerned person at one of the companies. Yes and he was willing to let us borrow the instrument provided we sent someone to pick it up and return it along with their engineer.

    This solved the problem and it also gave Mr. Ramanathan more confidence in handling agencies outside of our organisation. We were a happier and this little lesson went a long way in making us more efficient and effective.

    Some other lessons I can share.
    My junior comes to me and explains a problem that he has. I listen to him as I should (at least most of the time.). Before I realise what is happening. I suddenly became party to their performance failure because I was made aware of the problem.
    I solved the problem by adopting the question " I heard you, now what do you need from me?"
    Inevitably they would say “Nothing, I just wanted you to know".
    I preferred to conclude "Then I assume you will fix the problem and will still be able to meet your commitment?"
    If they needed any additional resources I would evaluate the situation and assist them if needed.

    I am at no time suggesting that a boss should abdicate from his or her responsibility.
    As the boss I was ultimately responsibility but I tried to ensure that problems that ought to be resolved by my juniors were tackled at their levels. My support came chiefly in the form of advice, and providing resources.

Some of you may ask why I am writing this management piece in my general blog.
The situation is not different in our homes and personal lives.
Sometimes, the spouse, siblings, children and friends also keep asking us to handle things that they are fully capable of handling but find it expedient to get someone else to do it for them.

I try to always ask myself, is this really necessary for me to be doing? What exactly does this request entail?

This lesson was useful for me, but of course it is unwise to underestimate the stupidity of human beings to keep on locating or creating problems for ourselves.


  1. Abhay Nadkarni said;

    Nice. I will circulate this.


  2. Shekhar Naik said;

    Hey Gurvinder

    You are getting better by the day!! and I am not patronizing.

    I have also wondered over long years why we do as we do and have come to one conclusion - it is the effect of our childhood conditioning.

    You will recall that as a child the person you were most in awe of was your dad; & subconsciously the reason was he generally did pretty much what he wanted to do and said what he wanted to.

    The only time someone could make dad do what he/she wanted to was when he went up to him with a "problem", now that would get dad to show he was a "man" and thus he began in right earnest to "solve" the problem, never mind, if you counted up, he rarely solved a problem ...... I guess you get the drift.

    Somewhere in the subconscious I think each of us "decided" that when we grew up we would be "dad" means that we would "solve" problems and I think its this "dad syndrome" we carry to the work place that is really at the root of all
    or most bosses assuming the role of the "great problem solver dad"


  3. Shekhar
    Seems a plausible explanation, that the man of the house, family is a role model.
    If it is this dad syndrome, how would it affect female managers?
    Would that mean women in managerial roles do not fall for upward delegation or they do not observe their father as a role model?
    I really don’t know enough about women in managerial or leadership roles to comment. What do you think?

    I am thinking of trying to design several research themes that we can get upcoming students and institutes to execute.
    Maybe we can design them together?

    Thanks for your interesting analysis and thus permitting me to learn from you.


  4. Shekhar Naik said;

    Good point;
    my observation is that on the whole women tend to waste less time on trivialities at the work place;

    given the same opportunities, on a one-on-one basis they usually tend to be better managers;

    they are definitely better at multi tasking and meeting deadlines; they usually give fewer excuses for not delivering something on time and this may surprise many but they are generally more resourceful.

    Does this mean that as a rule women make better managers than men? My gut says "YES" but I dont have empirical data to support the hypothesis; maybe as you suggest we can sponsor a project - the results would definitely be interesting and perhaps an eye opener to many


  5. Gibu George said,

    Dear Sir,

    Your articles are really inspiring ones and quite informative.

    Please send me your article on ‘LEAN MANAGEMENT’

    Thanks & regards

    Gibu George


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