You’ve Been Escalated: A Guide to Instigating Change

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The road to success is often paved with passion, conviction, and a healthy dose of doing the right thing for your business — even if that means taking some risks. In other words, it’s often good to be a master disruptor within your company. It’s also more fun to live your corporate life that way, speaking out on behalf of the creativity of the enterprise, feeling pride in making change, and having a strong point of view. You put your reputation on the line, but your days go by in a much more interesting way than if you simply focused on your own self-preservation. And you have the satisfaction of seeing your efforts, along with those of your other disruptor colleagues, come to fruition: a healthier enterprise, more compelling products and services, and maybe even a better world.

But what should you do when you get “escalated”? Escalation, in the corporate world, is the downside of asking forgiveness rather than permission. You’ve already gone out on a limb, and now you’ve crossed a boundary. You may have broken rank, been too transparent about the risks you were taking, or just expressed a point of view that not everyone agrees with. Then you get that terrible call or email, courteous and gentle on the surface but with a core of steel: “Please tell me who authorized this.” With the request comes the news that your action will be escalated to someone higher in the hierarchy.

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As someone who has built his career in professional services and has had some spectacular escalations, I have become very familiar with the experience. Ironically, today I am someone with a little “juice,” and now I get to see the other side of the escalation. Though the circumstances vary, at heart it’s always the same kind of drama, with the same three characters:

• The “escalatee” is the person who didn’t ask permission but did what seemed to be in the best interest of the company — but apparently not in the right way.

• The escalator is the person who has made that phone call to the escalatee. He or she observes the malfeasance or learns of it and ignites the process.

• The escalation referee is the highest-ranking person in this cast, the one who will dole out the feedback.

The drama typically ends with an unpleasant result. The escalatee is often a valuable individual, contributing to the growth of the company, who is suddenly squelched and discouraged. That in itself is bad for morale and sets a poor example. But worse still is the fact that the value of the innovation, whatever it was, is lost as the story unfolds. The escalation referee, who might well become the escalatee’s ally and supporter, is now in a structure that often leads to unnecessarily high levels of disapproval. If all three players had a bit more skill and thought more carefully about the roles they play, the episode could turn out much better for the company, and for everyone involved.

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As an escalation connoisseur, I want to unpack the story of a typical escalation a bit so you can see how to handle it effectively, especially if you are the escalatee. It’s usually not a cut-and-dried affair, and a number of variations may occur.

One typical scenario, awful for the escalatee, is “shock-ulation”: You aren’t aware you’ve done anything problematic, so you’re taken by surprise and need to collect your wits before you can assess the damage and proceed. Alternatively, you enter a state of “escalation-oia” (also known as escalatee’s remorse): You chose to cross a line without prior approval and you’re afraid of a possible reprisal, but you don’t know when or where it might happen. You thus begin to fear everyone. And you might twist in the wind a while, because the escalator might be prone to “escalation dysfunction”: communicating a subtle threat of escalation without actually pulling the trigger.

Eventually, though, it comes to your inbox, voicemail, or IM: the escalation ping. This is a deceptively casual message. Someone you have previously encountered only briefly at office functions sends a text: “Got a quick second to chat?” If you don’t respond quickly, it will be followed by an “escalation putt”: the same thing, but it happens on a Friday when you’re on the way to the golf course. If it’s truly serious, it’ll be the “escalation max”: a compound event in which the escalation moves rapidly to the top tier of the hierarchy. Being the trigger of a disturbance at those levels adds immeasurably to your shame.

Episodes like this can be so traumatic that after they have been through it once, people go to great lengths not to experience it again. They tamp down their commitment and passion; they avoid taking chances; and in the process, they lose their self-respect and their value to the enterprise. How then can you manage this dilemma? How do you succeed at being disruptive without being escalated? There are actually some pretty basic things you can do, and most of them are behavioral. Here are some precepts to keep in mind:

Don’t confuse disruption with performance. Challenging the status quo is difficult and should only be done when you are willing to stand behind the disruption. When you are not breaking things, you had better be a solid performer, demonstrating that you are an asset in other ways — and that, in fact, your disruptions are closely related to why you’re an asset. Credibility, experience, collegiality, and consistency are critical attributes that will lead people to respect you, even when you irk them.

It isn’t about you. You are not a true disruptor if you are acting on your own behalf. You need always to put business value and teams ahead of your own self-interest; otherwise, you will deserve the escalations you get.

Mentors should complement you. If you’re taking justifiable risks, there are senior people in the enterprise who will appreciate your actions. Look for them. Seek out people more senior than you who are willing to guide you yet different enough from you to see things you don’t. All too often, people seek mentors (or mentees) who are too much like themselves. Finding your opposite will help you see the gaps in your behavior and evolve your career much faster.

Pay attention to the positive. Being escalated doesn’t necessarily mean you screwed up. It simply means that you triggered a reaction from someone. Perhaps you haven’t been clear enough about your purpose or your logic, and thus you weren’t quite ready to make your case. Moreover, you probably work at a great company. (After all, you chose to accept the offer to work there.) Take time periodically to stop and reflect on all the great things that your company has accomplished. Take 15 minutes, an hour, or even a day to think through your perspective and your options before you ignite a situation.

Being escalated doesn’t necessarily mean you screwed up. It simply means that you triggered a reaction from someone.

A line attributed to Abraham Lincoln in the film Lincoln (as written by playwright Tony Kushner) provides an apt analogy to the nuanced attitude you could take, accepting the positive and negative together: “A compass points to true north, but it gives no indication of the swamps and marshes along the way. If you just use the compass, you will get stuck, and what use is knowing true north if you are drowned in a swamp?”

The secret to success is stamina, so power through, recover, learn, and find your own path to accomplishment. If someone asks, “Who authorized this?” have an answer ready. You might say, “I’m new to this” or “It didn’t need approval this time” or show the email you sent announcing your idea, the email that never got a response.

Over time, you may get good at playing the role of escalatee. If you can see the conflict coming and have built up your own credibility by persevering under fire, you can try to turn the situation around. Here is your opportunity, after all, to talk to someone senior, to learn why they look at this differently, and to demonstrate that you have the fortitude to take a ride on the escalator and live to tell the tale. You may even be able to show that your experiment was an effort to see what the enterprise would be like if it operated at its best.