Escalation as Tie-Breaker

By Christian Kaiser

In my previous post, I described how teams can remove obstacles by clearly defining who makes decisions for every area of responsibility in the team. The method includes assigning stakeholders who need to agree on every decision in the area.

An interesting aspect of it is that all stakeholders have the same level of authority over an area, i.e. all need to agree (or at least not disagree) in order to make a decision.

So what happens when the stakeholders do not agree?

I’ve observed teams become stuck when the decision is not being made and the dispute is just left standing. That is never a good option.

On other occasions, people have been more inventive and gotten things moving again, but not without breaking some rules. For example, I’ve seen one side just silently get going on the controversial project, thus creating irreversible facts. On the upside, the team can move on. On the downside, this behavior will undermine trust in the organization.

Why might intelligent people who belong to the same organization disagree?

Most likely, both sides have excellent reasons for their stance based on the context they have. For example, there may be insufficient or outdated context that needs to be communicated to one or both sides. Or perhaps the disagreement has exposed a question that no one had thought about thus far.

These situations clearly requires communication to, and action from people with the necessary context and authority. Simply put, the boss decides. After all, it is part of their job description!

Here’s how it can work: In case of a stakeholder stalemate, the next higher layer of the organization is informed and asked to make the decision (the “escalation”).

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Ideally, that is just one person, but if there is no immediate common boss, it may be multiple people (e.g. the respective department heads). If these bosses do not agree either, the matter is escalated further. If needed, all the way to the top.

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Doing so exposes the disagreement to a larger portion of the organization. That may come with discomfort. However, if all the obvious routes have been explored and the conflict is in fact due to a disconnect at a larger scale, it is the right thing to do and should be encouraged in every way possible.

Best Practices

So how does a boss help their team to make a decision? Three steps:

#1: The conflicting parties must give the boss the full pros and cons of the decision at hand. It is important that the boss fully understands them and demonstrates that understanding. If she fails to do so, it may create frustration and loss of trust (“I’m not surprised she decided the other way, she did not even listen to me / understand my proposal”).

#2: She then needs to make the decision.

#3: Last but not least, she needs to communicate why she made the decision this way. The reasons can actually range from “coin flip” to “judgment call” to “logical conclusion”. It’s important that there is an explanation so that people don’t have to make up one. The made-up explanation is typically a lot more dramatic than the real one!

At the end of the process, everybody can move on, knowing that a needed decision has been made. The party whose proposal was not chosen can rest assured that they have been heard and their reasoning was fully taken into account.

Potential Problems

What if people don’t know they’re expected to escalate, or are afraid to?

This is a common problem. The boss must re-iterate their readiness for escalation often, and avoid emotional behavior when it happens. A simple eye roll will discourage people strongly! And since escalation doesn’t come naturally in many organizations, the boss should actively explore her blind spots, find out when escalations that should be happening are not, and teach the team when to seek her out for decision making.

What if the boss is not making the decisions she needs to make?

In that case, the boss is failing her team. Perhaps it’s time for the team to escalate the inaction to the next level up.

What if the boss deals with escalations a lot, and it’s taking too much time?

First and foremost, making decisions is a crucial part of the duties of a manager, and should be highest priority, especially if progress is blocked. However, one clearly would want to minimize the occurrence of escalations.

Some common reasons for escalations and how to address high frequency occurrences:

  • Lack of context in the teams – probably the most common reason. The remedy is to diagnose the disconnect and communicate the resolution.
  • Unclear responsibilities – another form of lack of context. See above and my last post.
  • Conflicting personal motivations –  this is the hardest to diagnose and fix. For example, Bob is pushing for a decision because it will help get him promoted, even though it may not be the best for the company as a whole. It takes grit and determination to address these problems, especially in bigger companies.

What if decisions are regularly escalated so highly up the hierarchy that it’s difficult for the boss’s boss’s boss to know enough details to make a good decision?

It may be time to think about changing the structure of the organization, e.g. by creating a “common boss” lower in the hierarchy.

Conclusion

As part of a series of articles on organizational health and best practices, we’ve looked at escalation, an often underused method to reach quick decisions and resolution of larger disconnects.

In my next article, I’ll use these principles as a foundation for best practices for rapid technical innovation in teams of any size.

One thought on “Escalation as Tie-Breaker

  1. Pingback: Fast Collaborative Decision Making | The Order of Magnitude

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