Rise Above It: Staying Grounded In An Escalation-Happy World

Two arguing children stick their tongues out at one another.Gather ’round, workers of the world.  Today I am voicing my exasperation with behavior that has lately been chapping my hide: superfluous escalations. Corporate America is stinking with them

Don’t get me wrong, escalation can be warranted, like when a project team has tried every avenue of negotiation and bargaining to resolve a difference of opinion but has reached an impasse.  Raising the discussion up to more senior leadership can break the logjam.

On other (rare) occasions, when a rogue colleague is having a toxic effect — proving immune to charm, logic, reason, and pleas for civility and partnership — a constructive chat with his/her manager can be a reasonable course of action.

What a pity that many workplace escalations do not resemble either example.  Instead, they are little more than tattling, with some lipstick smeared on to pretty things up.

Such tattling takes many forms, but is usually based on the perception that escalation is the surest path to “yes”.  Hoping a colleague will take on a particularly nasty task that falls outside his job description?  If you ask him, he could say “no” so why not just head straight to his boss to get buy-in?  It may alienate and disfranchise your colleague, but don’t worry — if he gets huffy you can always escalate!

Sometimes it is less about speed than effort.  You could invite Sally to coffee to iron out your differences, but resolving conflict is so awkward and time-consuming, and a trip to Starbucks is a long walk in those three-inch heels of yours.  Meanwhile, Sally’s boss’s email address is so handy…

Tattling-type escalations are part of a zero sum game.  They are not meant to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, and move things forward, but to score a “win” by excluding the opposing party from the conversation.

Over the course of my career, I’ve determined that organizations where escalations run rampant have one thing in common: manager overreaction.

Humans are hardwired to find the path of least resistance, and keep to it – like lab rats that memorize the quickest route through a maze to reach the Velveeta.  Likewise with managers who fail to react thoughtfully to escalations.  They set a precedent, and reward the behavior until it is pervasive.

A few years ago, a colleague complained that a member of my team, P., was stepping on her toes on a project.  She was frustrated, and wanted me to set P. straight.  “Have you shared your concerns with her?” I asked.

Clearly this was not the response my colleague was anticipating.  “No I didn’t tell HER.  I’m telling YOU!  You are her MANAGER.”

I didn’t bite.  I suggested that the two at least try to work out their differences without my intervention.  And guess what?  I never heard another complaint.  They may have butted heads from time to time, but they sorted it out.  The project launched successfully, and the futility of tattling to me as a first resort was established.

In some organizations, consensus is king… at the expense of constructive conflict, which is a natural byproduct of workplace diversity, innovative thinking and healthy debate.  Fear of escalation can become punitive, so workers go into self-preservation mode by playing it safe.

What do you think, workers of the world?  Do you agree that workplace escalations are on the rise?  If so, what’s causing it?  How can organizations better encourage professional adults to collaborate and negotiate, rather than tattle?

Your ideas are welcome, no escalation required.

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