If You Escalate, You Fail

“If you have to escalate, you’ve already failed.” Those were the words a vice president of a Fortune 500 company told me during our interview. We were discussing the power of influence, especially when working with international teams. He was advising me that if you have to go over someone’s head to get what you need, then your leadership isn’t effective. Perhaps there are times when you have to resort to escalation, but 90% of the time it’s not necessary.

In a moment of frustration I recently escalated something, and here is what I learned:

You burn bridges. This one is obvious. When you have to go to someone’s boss because you can’t get what you need from the individual, that person will probably feel resentful. No one likes to look bad in front of leadership.

Your reputation changes. I had good intentions, and I assumed everyone would see that and agree with my point of view. I forgot a few things. If I’m escalating to someone’s boss, it could make the boss look bad as well. It’s their employee. Additionally, the employee and boss have a relationship, and most likely the boss’ first instinct will be protectiveness. It’s important to remember in this situation you are the outsider.

You invite extra scrutiny. If you bring an issue to senior leadership frequently, they start asking a lot of questions and want to see the documentation that led to where you are now. Be prepared to have to back up what you say.

I’m not saying to not communicate when a project is at risk or you are having issues. Your job as a leader is to ensure the success of the company. If someone is being an artificial barrier to that success, you will have to find a way around them. Try these things before escalation:

Gain buy-in. Oftentimes we avoid having one more personal conversation with the person because it’s tough. Conflict may result. Frequently we escalate the situation in our head far more than what plays out in reality. Approach the person and attempt to find common ground and points you can agree on. For other tips on gaining buy-in check out this post.

Ask why you don’t have their support. Try to understand the other person’s perspective. I have found that most of us want to do a good job. Most of us want to do the right thing. What happens is we don’t always agree on what “doing the right thing” means. See if you can understand the outcome the other person is trying to achieve. By having this dialogue, there may be an outcome you can arrive at that will make you both successful.

Bring in a mediator. I have encountered many instances where both of us are speaking English, yet somehow we are speaking two different languages. It’s nice when you can bring someone else into the equation to help communication flow and point out where you may be misunderstanding one another. Another option is to bring your boss and their boss into the conversation. Frame it not as an escalation but as, “We both have legitimate points of view, and we need your guidance on where you would like us to go with this.

Learning to influence people rather than relying on authority will not only maintain your relationship with those you are working with, but it will also improve your reputation. People will see that you are able to get things done with relative ease and that you aren’t leaving many ruffled feathers in your wake.

Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Project Genetics and the author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings, she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Project Genetics.

3 thoughts on “If You Escalate, You Fail

  1. The hardest thing is taking the first step to approach the person. I’m learning more about “non-violent communication” and have used it and loved the results.

  2. Yes, I find the fear of the unknown (how the person will respond) is usually escalated beyond what their response is really like. Do you happen to have any book recommendations on the non-violent communication approach?

  3. Pingback: 3 Toxic People in the Workplace and How to Manage Them | janaaxline

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