When you need to delegate upwards

Delegation is a wonderful thing, if done well: you get support to achieve your goals by passing them to someone else to deliver; and the person delegated to feels trusted, and gets a chance to contribute.

But delegation is traditionally done downwards: from a boss to a more junior member of staff.

This doesn’t always need to be the case.

There are times when it makes sense to delegate sideways, or even upwards.

This article sets out 4 situations where you need to delegate differently - and 4 tips on how to do it well.

1. When someone else has a better skillset than you

When I was working for the UK in Brussels, I used to lead a small team for each negotiation.

My job was to manage the negotiating process: get as much information as possible from stakeholders, plan our negotiating strategy, and lead the negotiation in the room.

It was not my job to be an expert in the technical detail of the legislation: for that, I relied on my UK policy experts.

It was not only completely appropriate, but vital to our success as a team, that we each focused on our own area of expertise - and used the expertise of the other members for the rest.

You can do the same: is there an expert whose view is crucial to a particular task?

If so, delegate it to them.

2. When you have competing organisational priorities that need to take precedence

We all get snowed under at times.

If you recognise that something important is not going to get done because you are dealing with something even more important - delegate it.

3. When someone else has access to vital resources (and you don’t)

Some decisions will always need particular authority: for example, spending money, if you don’t hold the budget.

In these situations, you will have to delegate your action to the person who actually has the power to deliver it.

4. When the situation requires greater political clout to resolve

I remember being in support of my Director at a cross-Whitehall Cabinet Office meeting.

I had been attempting to resolve a sticky issue with my counterparts - but none of us were senior enough to be able to make the call.

So, I delegated upwards.

I remember looking around at these Permanent Secretary-level civil servants, hearing them resolve the discussion, and thinking: “this is what they are here for!”

And it’s true: you will come across decisions that are “above your paygrade”.

Recognise that - and delegate them upwards.

So, now you know when to delegate sideways or upwards.

The next crucial question is how to do this effectively.

1. Communication

Make sure the task is communicated clearly and comprehensively.

This needs to include what you’ve done so far; any information on progress; the deadline; who else is interested; and the desired outcome (if there is one).

2. Frequency

This is not a way to avoid doing any work!

You can’t delegate everything, all the time.

Concentrate on delegating sideways and upwards only when truly necessary.

And in between, make sure you deliver effectively yourself.

Otherwise it will begin to look like you’re shirking rather than managing resources strategically…

3. Quid pro quo

This is also not a one-way street.

It is better to be clear (when delegating to colleagues) that you will also be happy to be delegated to, in return.

And it is always best to be grateful, and give positive (and if necessary, constructive) feedback as appropriate.

4. Build positive relationships

This type of delegating (that doesn’t depend on a hierarchical relationship) will always be much smoother if it is happening with the foundation of a good relationship.

So make an effort with your colleagues and your boss: help them out if you can; build a positive dynamic between you (not just when you need something); and as much as possible work with the grain of their workstyle.

(Don’t ask them to do something last minute if they hate that; don’t ask them to deal with real-life politics if their strengths are strategic thinking alone.)

So there you have 4 tips on when to delegate sideways or upwards; and 4 tips on how to do it well!

Good luck!


For help with navigating the career world, get in touch!

Things to do and consider

  1. What is your boss’s work-style? How is it best to approach delegating upwards - what particular times of day; using what communication methods and style; and with what level of information? If you consider this in advance, you will be ready when you need to delegate upwards to them.

  2. Who are the colleagues who might be most useful to you for delegation? Identify them, and work on building positive relationships in advance (before you need to ask them for anything).