On handling escalations

Published on 2016-07-26 by John Collins. Socials: YouTube - X - Spotify - Amazon Music - Apple Podcast


A big part of the tool-set of a manager is handling escalations, in fact it is one of the primary daily tasks you can find yourself involved with. Typically in my experience, escalations happen for two main reasons:

  1. A team cannot agree on a direction, and are escalating to a manager for a decision to be made.
  2. A team have reached a consensus, and are escalating to a manager for approval.

Approving a decision already made by a team is usually straight forward so I will not spend much time discussing this: unless the decision is clearly wrong for strategic reasons, it is best to approve it to help enable your teams to make autonomous decisions, while also providing them with cover in case the decision is questioned by anyone else afterwards.

Giving direction

For the first scenario when a team is seeking direction, there are a number of important facts to consider:

  1. Will a delay in making the decision block progress (this is likely)?
  2. Will a decision one way or the other alienate the "losing" side by a large degree?
  3. Do you have all of the facts you need to make the decision?
"In some organizations...escalations can bring delays, not decisions"

Once you have considered all of the above, it is vital that you make a clear decision as quickly as possible. People are looking to you for leadership, and if you do not display that then they will lose respect for you.

In some organizations I have been involved with, escalations can bring delays, not decisions. Unfortunately that is a common anti-pattern often refered to as "kicking the can down the road" 1, and can become systematic if left unchecked.