Influencing Escalations - How do we maximize the benefits and mitigate the negative impacts to cultivate happiness and productivity?

by Shauna Richter

Before the summer, I was reminded while leading two different workshops about how the topic of “escalations” generates so much passion. It’s not a particularly spicy topic, but it sure provokes a response from individuals at all levels of an organization. Perhaps it’s the association with personal experience that’s the true source of passion.

My roles over the past 10+ years have offered me a unique perspective into topics like this, working day-to-day with individuals at different seniority levels. When I talk about escalations, I am referring to internal organizational matters being sent to senior leadership for resolution. We can look at this from several angles. In this article, let’s focus on the question, how do we maximize the benefits and mitigate the negative impacts to cultivate happiness and productivity?

What are the top 3 reasons employees escalate matters to senior leadership?
1) Lack of information, resources, and/or authority to resolve issues. Instructions or a process may be unclear. Team members may lack access or training on required tools, or they lack the required decision-making authority.
2) Interpersonal or team conflict that requires mediation or resolution.
3) Systemic issues or organizational change—Interpretation of policy or structure is needed because of a recent change, causing something in day-to-day business operations to become unclear.

Whether talking to junior team members, mid-level, or senior leadership, most individuals and leaders easily identify and value the positive impacts—timely resolutions of issues and identification of opportunities for improvement, to name just two.

It is the negative that provoke the strongest response—time and resource consumption caused by increasing the number of people involved in issue resolution; the risk of creating a negative work environment that fosters a culture of blame or mistrust. This is particularly true when the focus is on the cause of a problem versus the solution. Escalations where senior leaders assume ownership over a problem can create employee frustration because employees feel they are not being allowed to do their job. On the flip side, time really is money, so there are circumstances where it makes good business sense for a solution to be owned by senior leadership.

This topic is complex and the in the moment response to each escalation is unique to the situation. Perhaps it’s a matter of adopting, where time permits, a practice of pausing to reflect to ask a few questions before we escalate.

Questions to consider before an escalation…

  • What is the urgency of this matter? Create your own internal scale, whatever resonates within the organization so that you are speaking a common language, particularly during times of high pressure and stress. If you are dealing with a large fire, it is important that everyone can quickly identify and effectively communicate this urgency.
  • What are the solution options?
  • What are the pros and cons of each? (Time, Cost, Complexity, Quality, Risk)
  •  Do I have what I need to solve this problem myself? If not, what do I need and from whom in the organization?

The ideas generated from the questions above can be concisely summarized for senior leadership so that the issue has moved toward solution and framed in a way that the escalation is about removing gaps or blockers versus starting at the problem stage. This framework can be used by senior leadership to coach team members through an escalation so that they remain engaged in the problem and its solution.

For senior leaders…

When receiving an escalation, consider whether you can coach those involved from the team through resolution of the issue. If there is a reason that you need to assume ownership over the matter, taking the time to explain why with as much detail as can be shared can go miles to support team engagement.

After the fire is out and the dust settles…

When there is time to reflect, looking at the escalation from cultivating employee happiness can spot loose ends that need to be tied up through important conversations with team members. From a productivity perspective, this is the time to evaluate people, process, and products and spot any patterns which need to shift and how to make this happen.