Recently a leader gave me feedback on a coaching conversation that he found particularly impactful.
“When you raised both hands and commented on the ‘Us vs. Them’ culture between the two departments, everything clicked, and I realized what I would do next time.”
Today I’ll unpack the learning we unlocked together.
I’ll leave the details of the scenario out to protect confidentiality. The upshot is that a leader in another department reached out to this leader to discuss an issue that impacted both departments. There is a history of tension between the two departments.
The leader followed his standard protocol, reporting the issue to his executive. Cognizant of the tension between the departments, he focused on the facts and objectively reported the details. His counterpart did the same with their executive, and drama ensued as the executives fought over the issue.
Ultimately the CEO got involved in resolving the issue. He shared his desire for a “low drama” culture with the leaders. In our coaching discussion, we examined alternative approaches that could limit the amount of drama.
A Better Way
As this was described, I had the image in my head of a parent resolving squabbles between two of their children. I imagine this is how the CEO felt. I’ve lived this experience as both the “child” and the “parent” several times throughout my career.
This scenario played out the way escalations usually do. Each leader escalates to their executive*, often with a “this is above my pay grade” mentality, and leaves it to the executives to hash it out. Even if each leader strives to be objective in their escalation, the story has several opportunities to evolve as they fill their executive in. We are left with executives who are a degree removed from the situation, likely receiving a skewed version of the story, tasked with coming to a resolution.
In this situation, I encourage you to consider a joint escalation strategy. Rather than individually briefing your respective executives, take the time to sit down with your colleague and jointly document the situation. This can be uncomfortable. This can take more time. In the long run, it will save time and money for the organization and elevate you as a leader.
- The facts of the issue (stay objective)
- The decision needed
- The date needed
- The options including pros/cons
- The people needed to resolve the issue
In going through this process, leaders often uncover new possibilities they had not previously considered. It’s common for the process itself to identify a solution to the issue that eliminates the need to escalate in the first place.
Taking this time also gives both leaders a built-in period for reflection and cooling off if the issue has triggered emotions. It allows for objective reporting of the facts of the matter. When you skip this process, the individual briefing process can be driven by emotions, lacking objectivity, ultimately fueling more unproductive conflict.
Resolving a Joint Escalation
If you still need to escalate after documenting the issue, share this document collectively with everyone involved in the escalation, both leaders and executives, so there is a single version of the truth for everyone involved rather than multiple independent stories.
Executives on the receiving end of an escalation should recognize the opportunity for coaching. Rather than jumping in to solve the problem immediately, the executives should look for coaching suggestions that help the leaders retain ownership of the issue and resolve it independently.
If the executives need to resolve the issue, rather than going off to “The Room Where it Happens,” consider including the leaders directly in the decision-making process. Invite the team into the room, involve them in the resolution process, and let them learn from your experience. In addition to the learning, you will achieve a better result, benefiting from the leaders’ direct experience and perspectives.
Both of these techniques will accelerate the growth of your leaders and reduce the need for escalation in the future.
Putting It Into Practice
Here are a few tips to put this into practice:
- When you need to escalate an issue, ask yourself who else should be involved in the escalation process.
- Work jointly with other affected leaders to document the details of the issue objectively.
- Jointly communicate the details to all executives required to resolve the escalation.
- When you receive an escalation, look for opportunities to coach the person who escalated the issue.
- When resolving an escalation, include the person who escalated the issue in the resolution process.
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*For simplicity’s sake, I refer to the individuals with direct experience of the issue as “leaders” and those they escalate to as “executives.” Feel free to substitute different titles/roles for your situation. This could be two individual contributors escalating to managers, for example.