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Delegating Up

Leadership and Management

Delegating Up

One of the lessons learned by many academic leaders is that all the insight and guidance provided by management books written for the corporate world don’t really work very well in an academic setting. The authors of these books often assume a rigid hierarchy, where a supervisor functions as a traditional boss and the person being supervised functions as a traditional employee. Certainly we have our hierarchies too, at least on paper when we’re asked to furnish an organizational chart for our programs, but that chain-of-command reporting structure is, for the most part, politely accepted fiction. Deans and chairs rarely operate by issuing orders. They much more frequently urge, cajole, bribe, and occasionally even beg in an effort to get something done. It’s a messy system, but on the whole it usually works.

There is, however, one practice from the corporate world that academic leaders can instantly recognize: delegating up—the practice of pushing either a decision or the responsibility for a decision up to the next administrative level. Delegating is thus something of a cross between managing up (keeping the needs and perspectives of your supervisor in mind when making decisions at your own level; see Buller, 2012) and managing through (pretending to be supportive of an idea at your own level for political reasons while expecting or requesting your supervisor to oppose the idea; see Buller, 2008). But managing up is actually very beneficial, and managing through, while it is a poor practice, at least stems from a desire to preserve harmony at the administrator’s own level. Unlike both of these practices, delegating up has nothing at all in its favor.

People delegate up when they either can’t, won’t, or don’t know how to do something that falls within their assigned duties. Consider the case of a dean who must regularly fix a department’s budget because the chair manages it so poorly. The chair may be delegating these financial responsibilities upward because he or she simply can’t do them: The department may be so large and unwieldy that the chair’s time is completely occupied resolving disputes, putting out fires, and taking care of hundreds of petty details. Alternatively, the chair may be delegating up because he or she regards supervising the budget as insignificant compared to curriculum development, fundraising, or some other activity that seems to have a greater long-term impact. Finally, the chair may not know how to read a spreadsheet or understand even the most basic accounting practices. In this case, we’d say that the chair was delegating up because he or she doesn’t know how to perform this duty.

It’s important to distinguish these different causes of delegating up because each of them has a different solution. In the case of the administrator who can’t perform an assigned responsibility, the first thing we have to do is identify the cause of the problem. In our example of the badly overworked department chair, the dean might be able to offer some assistance, such as the creation of an associate chair position with budgetary oversight responsibilities. Or the office of human resources might be called in to help address some of the infighting and interpersonal problems that are occupying so much of the chair’s time.

Those solutions won’t help much if the chair is fully capable of performing a task but, for whatever reason, chooses not to do so. In this case, the dean might want to review his or her expectations for what the chair’s duties are in the college as a way of making sure that those expectations are fully aligned. When dealing with a relatively minor issue, that clarification can be made during a casual conversation. If more serious issues are involved, it may be necessary to include the dean’s concerns in an annual evaluation or as part of a performance plan. In the most severe instances, the dean may even want to remove the chair for dereliction of duties and not performing all the tasks required in his or her job description.

When the cause of delegating up is a lack of knowledge, the obvious solution is to provide administrative development so that the person learns how to perform this required duty. Not knowing how to do something is actually quite common in academic administration. Most academic leaders receive their positions, not because they were trained to be chairs or deans, but because they excelled as faculty members. But administrative work is quite different from academic work. Chairing a committee effectively isn’t the same as conducting a class effectively. As a result, many leadership development programs created by colleges and universities don’t just address the “big questions” like, “What is leadership?” “How does academic leadership differ from other types of leadership?,” and “How can academic programs become more innovative?” They also deal with relatively routine matters like budgeting, time management, conflict resolution, and parliamentary procedure.

Perhaps the most important aspect of delegating up for academic leaders to know is that we make the problem far worse when we act as enablers for it. For example, we may decide that it’s just not worth the time and aggravation to send a report back to someone because it’s riddled with inaccuracies, poor grammar, and typographical errors. And so we fix the report ourselves. But by doing so, we’re giving permission to the person who sent us that report to keep delegating up. What we should do instead is identify the cause of the problem, and then address it in one of the three ways outlined above. Keep in mind, however, that it is just as problematic to ask for a task to be redone without providing clear instructions and expectations—“Redo this report and make it better next time”—as it is to do it ourselves. It’s far more helpful to give an instruction like, “Please check all your figures against the current year’s budget to make sure they’re accurate. (Some that I saw were clearly from last year before the reduction was imposed.) Also have your administrative assistant or a trusted faculty member review the report for typos and grammatical irregularities before resubmitting it to me by close of business next Friday.” If we don’t take the time to explain what we want, how we want it, and when we need it, then we’re merely encouraging the practice of delegating up.


Buller, J.L. (March 2012) Leading upward. Academic Leader, 28.3, 1-2.

Buller, J.L. (April 2008) The “Spider-Man Principle” and the “Categorical Imperative”: How to address the problem of “managing through.” Academic Leader, 24.4, 2-3.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLA: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.

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