The Art of Clean Escalation

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” – Mahatma Gandhi

As you begin to manage managers, your job changes from focusing on individuals within a team to supporting managers to deliver broader outcomes successfully. Your role is to facilitate clear, effective communication to maintain a high degree of alignment between managers within your team (say, Engineering Managers in your organization) or between managers across different functions (say, Engineering Managers, Product Managers, and Designers). Every once in a while, these folks end up with differing opinions. If you haven’t clarified to them how to escalate these situations, it leads to inaction, inefficiency, and deterioration in team culture.

In this post, we will discuss:

  • Why clean escalations are necessary?
  • How to escalate cleanly?
  • Tips for escalators
  • Tips for decision-makers
Why clean escalations are necessary?
  • Faster decision-making: Having a defined escalation path can help make decisions quickly in the face of competing paths of execution or approaches to design. By knowing who to contact and when, debates can be escalated to the appropriate level of authority or expertise, which can help speed up the decision process.
  • Improved Communication: Clear escalation paths can enhance communication between teams, departments, and stakeholders. By knowing the communication channels and expectations for collaboration and resolution at each level of escalation, everyone involved can stay informed and avoid misunderstandings.
  • Empowerment and Accountability: Clear escalation paths can empower team members to take ownership and help hold individuals accountable for resolving them. By having a defined escalation path, team members know when and how to escalate, which can help to promote a culture of ownership and accountability.
  • Reduced confusion and chaos: With a clear escalation path, team members know who to contact or what steps to take when a situation arises.
  • Continuous Improvement: Clear escalation paths help identify improvement areas in processes, procedures, and communication. By regularly reviewing the escalation path and analyzing the reasons for escalations, organizations can identify areas for improvement and make adjustments as needed.
Escalating Cleanly 
  • Figure out who you’ll be escalating to. Use RACI, DACI, RAPID, or any other framework if necessary. It doesn’t matter which one you use since any of these will drive clarity.
  • Let the other party know you intend to escalate. E.g., “It looks like we still see things differently. I want to escalate this. Would you like to be part of that conversation?”
  • If you and the party you disagree with are from different functions, escalate to the next higher level of the respective functions simultaneously.
  • Sometimes, you may not be comfortable with escalating together. That is ok! This should be the exception, not the norm.
  • If your first level of escalation is enough to resolve the differences, great. If not, escalate up to the next level. This continues until the differences are resolved. In my experience, most escalations get resolved within two levels of escalations.
  • Gathering all the necessary information to make the most informed decisions is essential. When dealing with escalating parties, decision-makers may have to request more information to understand the situation entirely. You may feel like you are being “interrogated.” However, we must know that the decision-makers are simply trying to gather as much information as possible to make the best decision possible. To help smoothen this, come prepared with different options and their pros and cons.
  • If you don’t agree with the decision made, disagree and commit. Once the decision is made, everyone is dedicated to making it succeed. You shouldn’t actively undermine the decision once people have committed.
  • Things to try to resolve before needing to escalate
    • Understand who is affected by what you’re doing and seek to align with them as early as possible.
    • Always assume good intent from all parties. 
    • Seek to understand the other person’s point of view. A little empathy can go a long way in preventing the escalation from happening. 
    • If you have a differing opinion with someone, switch roles with them and then debate again!
  • When all else fails, go for a quick, clean escalation.
  • Avoid continuing to argue until everyone agrees. “You’ve worn me down” is a suboptimal decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing.
  • Avoid one-sided escalations. One-sided escalations can cause you to lose the other person’s trust. Remember, trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.
  • Escalations are simply a means of ensuring global optimization rather than local optimization. Please do not use them as weapons.
  • Escalations are a tool for resolving differences quickly. If you need time to gather critical information, that’s okay; do not let it drag on.
Decision Makers
  • Backchannels and one-sided escalations further deteriorate trust. If people come to you individually, suggest they escalate together. You must build trust and remain neutral until you have all the information.
  • Be very clear about the timescale for the decision. Your job is to make decisions quickly.
  • Communicate a change in decision clearly. If people have committed to a course of action and you change course, you’ve undermined everyone involved. There may be times when new information arrives that renders a decision obsolete. Your job is to communicate clearly what new information led to a change in decision.

Sources and other reading material

Atlassian’s Playbook on Clean Escalations
How do you resolve conflict in just five days?
How do we escalate disagreements cleanly?