Escalating Up the Hierarchy

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Should you escalate an issue up the hierarchy if you can’t resolve?  While that might seem like the fast path, the issue is that you’ll be seen as ineffective.  You also might not get the support.  A test of your potential is whether you can get things done without authority.  Instead of escalating, consider asking for advice, not action.  Use the advice for your own learning to improve your effectiveness.  In Influence Without Authority (2nd Edition), Allan Cohen and David Bradford write about avoiding escalating up the hierarchy to get things done.

Get Things Done Without Relying on the Hierarchy
Avoid escalating.  You might not get the support and you’ll be seen as ineffective.  Cohen and Bradford write:

It is always possible, but seldom desirable, to take an unresolved issue to the next level where you have a common boss.  If you are desperate and can’t make any headway with your colleague, it is tempting to try to get support from above.  The problem with this approach is that you are likely to be seen as ineffective as a manager if you do this very often.  One of the tests of your potential is whether you can get things done without relying on hierarchy.  Second, you might not get support, and then you have spent your ammunition.  And if you go above, many colleagues will be resentful, feeling as if you are somehow tattling.

Ask for Advice, Not Action
Rather than escalate and ask for authority, ask for advice.  Cohen and Bradford write:

If, however, you have tried everything else and believe that what you are asking is critical to the organization’s future, you may want to get some help.  But instead of going up the line and making a case for why you should receive authority from the higher-up, use that person as a resource.  Ask for advice on how to gain cooperation from your colleague, explaining that perhaps you aren’t understanding some aspect of what is important to him or her.  Never attack the colleague.  And don’t ask the higher-up to take direct action, thought sometimes that might be offered and appropriate.  Instead, focus on your own learning, asking for diagnostic help that will allow you to be more effective.  In the process, you will probably have a chance to talk about why what you are working on is so important, but your focus is on how you can obtain needed support.

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Don’t rely on authority and hierarchy to get your job done.
  • If you rely on support from above, you can be seen as ineffective.
  • A test for your potential is whether you can get things done without relying on hierarchy.
  • Ask your higher ups for advice, not action.
  • Focus on your own learning and how to be more effective.

Lessons Learned at Microsoft
At Microsoft, there’s a lot of scenarios where you have to get stuff done without authority.  It’s a test of your ability to sell an idea, get people on board, and deal with the resistance.   One of the most important things I learned was to start by asking, “who needs to be on board?”   I also learned how important it is to distinguish who owns versus who influences decisions.  By mapping out who owns and who influences the decisions, I can then figure out where the resistance is. 

The most important question I ask, if there’s resistance, is “what are the concerns?”  If I know the concerns, I can address them.  I also need to know the answer to “what’s in it for you?” (WIIFY), for each stakeholder.  If there’s nothing in it for them, why should they help.  This sometimes means reshaping the outcome to make it a win-win and more inclusive.

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