Post authored by Jeff Fugate, SVP Strategic Sales & Marketing
One of my favorite superhero movie quotes comes from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spiderman…
”With great power comes great responsibility.”
This is also true in business and like traditional superpowers, escalation is one that can be used for both good and evil. Like most superpowers, if wielded without the right intent and purpose, the results can be devastating.
The Decision to Escalate
Oxford Dictionaries defines escalation as:
“An increase in the intensity or seriousness of something; an intensification.”
For the purposes of this post, I’d like to address escalation in the context of business – focusing on instances when someone at a higher level is engaged to help solve a problem.
All too often, I see this escalation superpower used in the wrong way. Even with the best of intentions, if this superpower is wielded incorrectly, the repercussions that follow can be disastrous.
The most common (and harmful) way I see escalation being used is the upside-down U.
John has a problem with Joe. But instead of going directly to Joe, John reaches out to his boss, Jane, who then reaches out to Joe’s boss, Jeanne, who then reaches out to Joe.
What are some of the implications of this flawed escalation path?
- Joe feels like John has gone behind his back.
- Jane and Jeanne are now spending time engaged in solving the problem.
- John has passed the accountability/responsibility for his relationship with Joe to Jane.
- It’s likely all four people will need to come together to resolve the problem, resulting in more time spent – often precious time that could have been invested in solving another problem.
- Jeanne walks away with the perception that John and Jane are unable to work through challenges with others.
What’s the alternative? What would be a more efficient and effective escalation path?
John goes to Joe and tries to solve the problem. If John and Joe are unable to resolve the matter, they collectively escalate to both Jane and Jeanne simultaneously.
You might be thinking “Jeff, that’s just common sense.” If it’s common sense, why is there so little of it being practiced in the workplace? Why is it so difficult to address our issues directly with a co-worker, before escalating this to our superiors? Like most things we struggle with, fear is usually the culprit.
We’re afraid of…
- Hurt Feelings
What should be more frightening to us are the implications discussed above – how poor escalation decisions damage relationships and when left unchecked, ultimately hurt business performance.
Radical Candor: Improving Escalation Decisions
At Experient, we’ve embraced a powerful methodology from the best-selling book, Radical Candor by Kim Scott. What I appreciate about this approach is how it addresses escalation, framing it as both a positive and negative superpower.
At its core, serving as a compass for navigating escalation decisions is a straight-ahead and simple 2×2 tool – something that your team can check periodically, to guide their next actions.
As you’ll notice in the 2×2 matrix, the x axis measures the degree each party is challenging their colleague directly, while the y axis gauges the degree each party cares personally about one another.
When we fail to care personally AND challenge directly in proper proportion, things can get ugly, landing us in one of these three perilous states:
- Ruinous Empathy
(High Care Personally/Low Challenge Directly)
Someone’s trying to be “nice” to spare someone else’s feelings, but they’re not saying what needs to be said, so the problem grows more serious.
- Manipulative Insincerity
(Low Care Personally/Low Challenge Directly)
The worst of all quadrants, as it tends to spark a downward spiral of reciprocal behavior. Manipulative insincerity gives rise to more manipulative insincerity.
- Obnoxious Aggression
(Low Care Personally/High Challenge Directly)
Also known as “brutal honesty” or “front stabbing,” if we discover later that we were perceived to be harsh in our assessment, the natural tendency for most people is to back off, which drops these folks into the danger zone – yep, more manipulative insincerity.
Striking the Perfect Mix of Challenging and Caring
The more we strive to stay in the Radical Candor (RadCan) box, the more we’ll be perceived as both kind and helpful – and when that happens, everything improves.
I would encourage you to pick up the book and explore the concepts. We’re close to a year into injecting these RadCan principles into our culture and we’re witnessing quite a few transformations within our teams.
With that said, there are still moments when we slip and that can happen at any level – from the bottom up and the top down.
On occasion, I’ve witnessed some abuse of this superpower, as I’ve watched someone proclaim RadCan – only to proceed in mowing down another and slipping into Obnoxious Aggression. Yet even in those precarious moments, if radical candor is something you embrace throughout your organization, there’s higher likelihood that a peer will care and challenge this person back into the RadCan zone.
By the way, I haven’t even touched on how these same superpowers can be applied to strengthen customer relationships, as well as buyer and seller exchanges. A clearly defined process for resolving challenges, coupled with a sound escalation path, can have an immensely positive impact on how people interact both inside and outside your organization.
But it starts on the inside, because what’s happening within your organization is one of the first things noticed on the outside by your customers – and good or bad, it’s a mindset that’s highly contagious.