Escalation is the process by which a problem that isn’t getting needed attention gets raised higher and higher up the organization’s management chain until it does; it’s how you drive (rather than make) decisions that aren’t yours to make. Taking a problem to more senior levels is a potentially pressure-filled situation that can go well, or not so well: here’s how to increase your chances of a better outcome.
The process of escalation is simple, if not easy: you work with the person responsible for fixing the problem, and if that process fails, you notify his boss, then his boss’s boss, and so on until you get the attention, resources, or decisions the problem requires, and you document what you have done along the way, making sure your boss also knows when the problem starts to introduce risk of some failure. The keys to success are accurately describing the problem; focusing on the problem rather than the person (exception addressed below when the person is the problem); and not skipping over people in your efforts to solve the problem.
The process of escalation. Once you identify a problem, you go to the person responsible for solving it, and the majority of the time you work through it together and that’s that. When it’s not, the escalation process begins: you ask that person for help (again), you indicate by when you need it, and if you don’t get it, you ask whom you can next ask for help, and then you approach that person, typically but not always someone more senior than the person you started working with. If you have been communicating with someone only by email and they are not answering, be sure to try phone or video calls or an in-person meeting, if possible, before you start escalating. When you start to be at risk of bad outcomes (projects slipping, other resources standing idle, key agreements delayed), you make sure your boss knows as well: you may well be asking for her help at that point anyway, and you don’t want to surprise her. That process repeats itself with more senior people each cycle until you get the resources or decision you need to go forward. Along the way, you document the steps you took to get the decision made. This documentation isn’t a project in itself: it’s just a list of the date, the person you worked with, the request, and the outcome. There are two reasons to do this: you want to be able to show how you tried to solve the problem if you need someone else’s help solving it, and you want to learn from it how to do it all better the next time.
When escalation is done right, it notifies people what unsolved problem is out there and gets it solved before it becomes a bad problem. Good escalation thereby supports one of the more helpful general rules of workplaces: “there is no bad news; there are only bad surprises.” The thinking behind that rule is that any known problem can be analyzed and addressed, but surprises are much more disruptive, especially if they must be handled quickly. In addition to being disruptive, surprises are often embarrassing, which can lead people to behave badly, especially when it is their problem being escalated. (See below for some advice on what to do when you must escalate to or about someone who does behave badly on getting difficult news, and what to or about people who are otherwise themselves the problem.)
Key 1: Accurately describing the problem. First things first: describe the problem, in three parts: the problem itself, person needed to address it, and the consequences if not fixed. Ex. 1: You can’t advance your project because team X, which supposed to give you 8 weeks’ work, is behind on its projects and its manager won’t assign anyone and can’t tell you when she will; if you don’t have a named resource by the time you are supposed to start that part of the project, you will slip a day for every day you do not have a resource. Ex. 2: You can’t start your project because marketing and product teams can’t agree on the most important features to include and leave out of the next release. If directors X and Y cannot give you a decision by [date], the resources you have lined up cannot start, and you will either have to delay the project or not include some features.
Key 2: Focusing on the problem rather than the person. Always describe the problem in terms of resources or decisions rather than a person. “Our project needs a resource from team X, and their manager hasn’t named one and can’t tell us when she will, though we have asked for three weeks” is actionable; “their manager is an unhelpful jerk” is less actionable – it’s much easier to get someone to assign a resource than to make some be less of a jerk. Not only is focusing on the problem more actionable, it almost always sounds more professional than focusing on the person. Your professional credibility is a key aid in making others want to help you solve sticky problems.
Key 3: Not skipping over people. Once you have been at an organization for a while, you will discover who is good at handling escalated problems quickly and well. It is tempting to go straight to those people and ask them for quick help. It is often the right thing to ask for advice on escalating your problem, but it is nearly always better to go through the process of working with the person whose help you need, then his boss, and so on. It is very frustrating for managers to hear from their own bosses “hey, I heard you aren’t helping [person] solve her problem” when they haven’t even been approached, and it will make them much less likely to help you again, or indeed to listen to you.
When the person is the problem. Sometimes the person is the problem: someone who owes you an answer or a signoff routinely does not answer their backlogged email and doesn’t respond to your messages or request for a face-to-face meeting to address a problem. Or someone is so difficult to work with that people avoid her and delay critical decisions in the process. Or someone is slacking off, and others on the team or project are growing resentful. Interestingly, in those cases it is even more important to describe the problem in terms of its effect first, before you make any personal comments at all: “I have asked [person] three times in the last two weeks to [answer a key question], and I have not gotten an answer”; “the last problem-solving meeting ended without any solution because she was so caustic to two of the people there”; “he has missed three of his last four check-ins.” It is much easier for someone to engage on your behalf, which is what escalation is, when s/he can help you solve a defined problem, even if the underlying reality is a problematic personality.
A few kinds of person-is-the-problem problems need to go to your boss and, probably, Human Resources, right away. If you observe or are the victim of behavior that violates either your company’s policies or basic human decency or both, you need to make that known (and document it carefully for yourself, too). Either your organization will handle it well – good! – or not. If not, you will have raised the issue and have information about the organization as you consider your current job and your career path in it.
When bad news is the problem. Sometimes people don’t react well to news of problems, so much so that their behavior can lead people not to want to deliver bad news. They say things like “be sure you don’t bring me any bad news, now” in a joking-but-not-joking way, or roll their eyes, snap, or worse when problems are brought to their attention. That is a hard situation with generally bad outcomes, because when employees get that kind of reception when they escalate problems, sooner or later they don’t raise problems while they are still easier to solve. The only thing I have ever found to work consistently in that situation is to present your problem as coming earlier and therefore when easier to solve: “hey, I wanted to raise this issue now, so you can help me solve it before it gets really bad” is the line to take. After the current issue has been put to rest, this is a problem to raise with your boss, mentor, or trusted colleague: “escalation to [this person] is really hard, because s/he hates bad news; is there anything you’d advise me to do to make this go better next time?”