Collaborative Escalations

Unless you’re the Almighty, you have been confronted with escalations. If your role contains the word “manager” chances are you get them in your inbox once in a while. Yes, this is about formal escalations at work. The thing with formal escalations seems to be that nobody likes them. But why is that?

Possibility 1: An escalation is about an issue of some kind. A problem is transferred from one owner to another. If you’re at the receiving end, it comes on top of all the other things to do. And if the “sub-ordinate” cannot solve it, you’ll probably face a hard time trying to do so .

Possibility 2: Most of the escalations happen “too late”. The issue has already caused problems to an extent where it may hurt. And in business, when it hurts, the manager is responsible.

Possibility 3: At the other end of the escalation, the sender feels powerless to do his job. He actually has to give up control and often escalations become fingerpointing games with all the destructive emotions and actions attached to it.

Most escalations happen for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, with a wrong intent and/or in a wrong way. All wrong, at least if you look what the effect of an escalation ideally would be. Wrong also because of the effects on collaborative relationships and, consequently, performance.

Escalation is technically speaking nothing else than upwards  delegation. Usually it is a request for help to solve an issue for which the solution lies beyond the control of the individual or team confronted with it. Ideally escalation rules and paths are defined in a way that makes them most effective in the context. That’s theory and rules have their limits in complex situations.

Escalations should only help in finding solutions, a bit like Jim in one of the early posts of this blog. the difference would be that Jim nor yourself is the owner of the solution, nor do any of you have everything under control. An escalation about a past event with no added value for the future is destructive in nature. Let’s say you would escalate the fact that your kid broke a glass… What would you escalate? What do you want support with? Would an escalation actually help in any way to avoid glasses from being broken? Or do you want the information of a glass being broken reported to a “higher” level? For reporting, there are other, better suited tools like… eurhm… a report.

Some questions to ask yourself before escalating something:

  • Is this a complaignt about something? Yes: not an escalation.
  • Can the matter of the escalation be interpreted as a request for help or assistance? Yes: a good candidate for escalation.
  • Is there any benefit for future issue resolution to be expected from this escalation? Yes: a good candidate for escalation.
  • Is the escalation objective: getting even, settle scores, “making it feel”, exercise power,  getting something across or through their thick skulls? There are other tools for that.

Collaborative and effective escalations:

  • never come out of the blue. The involved people should already be aware of the upcoming escalation
  • should deal with content, not relationships. Good relationships help in tackling the escalated issue at hand.
  • need to be stated in terms of status and situations. Forget for a moment how you came there. Just state what is going on “here and now”.
  • have to make future collaboration easier. De-personalize your communication.
  • are requests for assistance of some kind and may be a signal of an organisation or process that needs improvement.

Escalating an issue based on a sense of ownership and with an intent of making collaboration better, easier and more effective  is always good news.


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