Escalations are a means towards a collaborative path forward

How to handle escalations is a critical skill that is needed by every manager/leader to run a successful team. Teams get blocked by conflicting priorities and sometimes need escalations to help in decision-making. Escalations are a means towards a collaborative path forward. But you need to know when to escalate. Don’t use it as a weapon. Do not escalate every encountered issue, only escalate those issues that have a sizeable impact.

To Escalate or Not?

There will always be conflicts. Having clarity around team vision and goals is imperative for resolving deadlock-type situations. Your top priority as a leader is to prevent petty escalations. Not every conflict deserves to be escalated. Empower team members to own their problems. Create a culture of collaborative problem solving and nip unnecessary conflicts in the bud.  Know when to escalate. Assess the impact. What is the risk? Can it be mitigated? Who can be the decision-maker? How do you want this to be communicated?

Use ideas and tips from my blog on Strategies for Effective Communications to build a culture of collaboration and cohesion.

Establish an Escalation Path and Mechanism

Escalations aren’t fun, but they are necessary to get traction. Encourage team members to seek guidance when there is a lack of clarity. Determine who all need to be informed. Typically team members closest to the problem and their managers or decisions makers should be involved in this process.
Have you seen an email chain where the entire world was copied? That is just not necessary. This is not the time to embarrass folks.
Follow the proper chain of command. Do not skip your manager and go up the chain. This causes unnecessary friction. This is not the time to play favorites.
Establish a proper escalation path and mechanism for your team to follow. Write this down somewhere where team members can find it. Usually, escalation is a stressful time. Empower your team to follow the right protocol.

Agree on the problem

When communicating, state the problem clearly. Don’t assume decision-makers have all the details. Provide full context. Avoid finger-pointing. Instead, align on the issue that’s blocking. Explain the risks to the customer, to the team, and to the company. Explain what you and your team did to avoid it. Provide a timeline of the issue (when it started and how long has it been blocking). 
In my experience, it is best to gather key stakeholders together in a meeting and get to a resolution fast. With today’s remote working ways, this can still be done with an online meeting. Get together in-person or via teleconferencing, either way, don’t let an escalation brew.

Clearly state the asks

Most likely you need help to de-escalate the issue. Are you the decision-maker? Or are you asking for help? Are you seeking approval? Or are you just reporting the issue as FYI? Be clear with your asks.
If your team has explored options, ask them to list out the pros and cons. Ask their recommendation. Are you aligned with their recommendation? As you are closest to the problem, your insights will be helpful to the decision-maker. Let the decision-maker know what is expected from them. 

Follow up is key 

Follow up with updates on the next steps. Help to line up efforts to resolve the issue.  Send a final note when the issue is resolved. At a later time, do a retrospective with your team. Use the 5 Whys technique to dig deeper. What were the learnings? Are there any pending actions? How can this type of escalation be avoided in the future? 

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