- Five steps to building greater accountability
This article looks deliberately at the dark side of the phenomenon of escalation in corporate organisations, and in this, I am NOT looking at possible positives of such.
I have been working with several organisations as a consultant to leadership teams, and one of the key themes that emerges especially in IT offshore unit leadership teams in India is the spectre of ‘escalations’. In a matrixed and complexly wired organization, it appears that escalating issues to higher levels appears like a release valve on at least two counts -
- It gives the upper management and the complex network busy, tackling problems occurring at lower levels and
- It creates breathing space for the levels at which the problem originated — after all one problem volleyballed away gives the arms some rest till the ball comes back or the next ball arrives
But then, mindless escalation also creates a toxicity. Trust between peers gets eroded. Hallway and cafeteria whispers pattern into a familiar litany “Have you escalated this ?” And once an issue has been escalated, reminders can be sent on those escalations, thus reinforcing the release-valve phenomenon stated above. One organization that I consult with has worked its way around this pernicious phenomenon. We call it “Getting off the escalator”. I share below five approaches that we use in this team. We believe that these are not mere transient ‘tips’ but rather five ways of building greater accountability in teams.
- Don’t raise the mercury level — act as a channel / conduit — This is particularly for the senior leaders who are copied on escalations. You do not have to respond to each of them. You follow the old orchestra-conductors’ adage “Don’t look at the trombones, it only encourages them”. Instead, you either ignore those escalations (thus signalling that (1) your time is more precious than that and (2) that issue needs to be handled by the escalators by themselves) OR you channel the escalator to an appropriate lower level functionary that you think can handle it. This latter approach also induces a quandary for the escalators — that it comes back for resolution to a different peer is a powerful hieroglyph indeed. As a boss — remember that somewhere you are being gamed (and I don’t mean consciously) — your actions and reactions will set you up for the ‘next round’. So make your move count, will you ?
- Seek to understand AND to be understood — This and the next three points are for those that might be considering escalating or are (or likely to be) the ‘victims’ of escalation by another. This can also be called ‘S2a&2bu’ — it essentially means pause before you press that ‘send’ key. I also like to remember that ‘send’ can sometimes lead to an ‘end’ (of the relationship, in some ways). So, what is an alternative — you are seething with understandable work-rage (cousin of road-rage), you are gnashing your teeth, eyebrows are furrowed, and the finger is itching to get you on to the escalator … I advocate that you mindfully step back, and ask a question or two. Imaging that you are your boss or boss’s boss or the “wise mentor” of the organisation — what would they ask ? Respectfully asked (and NOT sarcasm-laced) questions can have a disarming effect. You might understand the other person better AND you may have an opportunity to state or better state your position. Let the escalator ride one round empty.
- Walk across and Talk across — this is a variant (but a strong variant) of S2a&2bu — email or WhatsApp is the official escalator mechanism. Take the ‘staircase’ instead — walk to the person you have a conflict with. Then walk WITH them. That may get you to TALK with them … get the drift ? Consciously use this opportunity to determinedly stay off the escalator .. may do wonders for your heart health!
- Publicly do a ‘ — ‘ rather than a ‘++’ :- One of the ways of getting onto the escalator is the ++ action — where you add a few people to the fast-bloating address list / cc list and write in a seemingly helpful ++ sign (when you do bcc, you don’t visibly insert the ++). Unfortunately, the persons you ask to ‘weigh in’ with perspectives / opinions / decisions often end up ‘weighing down’ the scales, make the issue over weight, and contrary to speeding things up — often slow it down. What’s worse, the stage — now rapidly getting filled with scarred soldiers — gets set for future retaliation. So, if you spot an issue with an address-list splitting at the seams, take a courage call to ‘ — ‘ a few people. It may be a good idea to say “Hey Ashok and Sheila — we are dropping you off this issue, don’t worry, we’ll handle it and let you know how we closed it. Thanks!” … You save time for a few executives, you take accountability for solving something yourself, you build culture (after all, it IS built one action at a time and over time)
- Realise that it may come back to you — This amplifies the retaliation point alluded to earlier. ‘Getting even’ and ‘settling scores’ are human phenomena deeply linked to idea of ‘face’ (as in ‘saving face’), a sociological concept associated with the idea of one’s dignity / honour / prestige. If I suffer and lose face through an escalation triggered by you, there is a possibility with a considerable probability that I might want to return the favour. Besides the retaliation point, there is another lesson of import for accountability — In the long run, it may be better to own up in what way one may be part of the so-called ‘problem’ rather than mindlessly placing it on the escalator. As I have tried to internalise from my friend Raghu Ananthanarayanan and certain others in the human-process-work space — If I believe the problem to be only ‘out there’, I may be severely and dysfunctionally delusional. If I don’t see myself as part of the problem, there is no way I can be integral part of the solution. And if I cannot see myself as part of the solution, I may be part of the problem (or maybe I AM the problem!).
There — I think I have gotten it all, some of my valuable learning about this dynamic, from consulting experience. In closing, I would like to state that the subtext of mindless escalation is perhaps a sense of immature dependency, maybe even a sense of impotence. From a systems psychodynamic perspective, perhaps two phenomena are at play — one called ‘basic assumption dependency’ — that the omnipotent one to who something is escalated will step in and relieve the escalators from all anxiety. The second is ‘basic assumption pairing’ ( especially when an issue is escalated to two other significant leaders, as often happens — I escalate to my boss and you escalate with equal briskness to yours)- action at the escalator-initiating level is frozen in the hope that some magical union between the two escalatees will produce a redeeming solution.
My hope is that we will recognise some of these patterns and dynamics and be alert to their occurrence — very often these occur unconsciously, or even if they are planned consciously, we often do not account for unintended consequences.
So happy walking or climbing, folks!
In closing, I have actually managed to write a “five steps to …” article. I call it as arising out of envy of the style of one my dearest friends, and he will probably call it my competitiveness, but I am not escalating this! We’ll settle it (one way or another).
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.