How to Escalate Disagreements Cleanly -- A Coaching Conversation


"My job is not to be right, my job is to raise the issue when I'm concerned to alert the people who make the final call."

Clean escalation functions like a common law system in which the managerial hierarchy is analogous to the superior judges.

When two people cannot agree on the best way to pursue the organizational mission, they engage their manager(s) to analyze the problem from a more systemic perspective.

If the manager's help is enough to resolve the issue, the process ends with a collaborative decision.

If the manager's help is not enough, then the three (or four) can escalate the issue to the next level. This continues until the issue is resolved--all the way up to the CEO.

Clean escalation forces each party to present a rational explanation for why he believes that his proposal is the best way to attain the organizational goal. It is not sufficient to say that his proposal will improve his performance, since this is not a "reasonable argument." The goal is not to improve local metrics, but to win the global game. In fact, as I said in several posts to optimize the system it will be often necessary to sub-optimize the sub-systems.

Once the issue is resolved, the case remains as a "precedent" that informs the members of the organization how the "court" (managers) are likely to "rule" (decide) in similar instances.

If a manager believes that the issue is being improperly escalated he can "refuse to hear it" and send it back to the "lower court." This can happen either because the conditions for clean escalation have not been met, or because the issue has already been resolved in the past (there's a clear precedent).

For this system to work, people with conflicts have to be willing to escalate them collaboratively and discuss them rationally. This needs to be the cultural norm. Thus, the leaders must encourage everybody to participate in the clean escalation processes, and to sanction those who try to avoid and block escalations to protect their local interests.

In the following video I discuss with Cory how he can work with his counterpart to resolve a conflict through clean escalation.

*Should you have any difficulty viewing the embedded video please click
to view on Fred's Slideshare page

Readers: What insights can you draw from the case? How would you use them in your professional environment?