Escalating the issue

Organizations have hierarchies. Work gets delegated from the top downwards and each layer reports to the one above it as it makes progress in its area of responsibility. If progress isn’t made and there’s no valid reason for the lack of progress, there are negative consequences.

So when you’re interacting with a member of another organization and you believe that the person you’re interacting with isn’t doing their job properly, it’s tempting to try to resolve the issue by escalating it to their supervisor. I’ve tried to do this, and have also been on the receiving end of such attempts.

Unfortunately, this approach rarely works. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the supervisor to whom you’re escalating the issue almost always trusts the subordinate in their organization more than they trust you, an outsider to the organization. The second is that the subordinate spends more time with their supervisor than you do so they have more time to convince their supervisor that they’re right. So even if your argument has merit, the subordinate is unlikely to see it. And even if they do, they may not be willing to take the right action as this would require that they compromise their long-term relationship with their subordinate for their short-term relationship with you.

The issue therefore remains unresolved and you end up harming your relationship with the subordinate. This makes it even less likely for you to be able to resolve the issue in the future. So you’re left in a worse position than when you started.

A better approach is to continue to work with the subordinate while nudging them to get their supervisor to weigh in on the issue. In other words, the subordinate needs to be the one who gets their supervisor involved, not you. This requires a lot more patience than escalating the issue, but it’s what you need to do so that the subordinate is to the extent possible your ally, and not your enemy, when you talk to the supervisor.

This isn’t always possible. Sometimes the issue is urgent. At other times the subordinate just won’t get their supervisor involved. So you have to escalate the issue. But more often than not our impatience makes us escalate too early. Escalating the issue should be your last resort.