5 Tips for Escalating to Problem People

Our status meetings with the client were on Thursday mornings, where we would run down the list of open items. Week after week it was the same old story.

“Did this get done?” I would ask.

“No, not yet,” they would reply.

“Okay, how about this other item. Any progress?” I would ask.

“Well, I talked to someone about that, but no progress yet,” they would say.

“Okay, certainly, I know we were real close to getting this final thing done last week. Did it get done?” I would pensively ask.

“Not yet, something else came up that put that at a lower priority. I hear it will be done next week, though,” they would say.

I wanted to scream! Week after week the updates from the client never changed. No progress! What’s even more perplexing is that we were being paid to work on projects for their company. And, to make matters worse, the fellow that I was assigned to escalate issues to was the guy providing the updates. He hadn’t even been able to get movement on his own team.

I daydreamed of being able to walk over to their resources desk and say, “Hey, what’s your problem? Don’t you know we’ve been waiting on this for nearly a month? Let’s make it happen this week, buddy.” But, I realized that’s just a dream. There’s no way I would be able to pull that off within the client’s company. I need to work within their chain of command.

Or, did I? What happens in those instances where you need to escalate to your escalation point? I had been escalating to him for months and we were still in the same boat we were months earlier. Isn’t there a saying along the lines of, “The definition of stupidity/insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and yet expecting different results”? Something had to change.

The Pros and Cons of Escalating Your Escalation Point

5 Tips for Escalating to Problem People

5 Tips for Escalating to Problem People

I began to think through how I could do something different. The first and obvious choice that came to mind was that I needed to go above my contact’s head to get something done. I need to pull rank and get his superiors involved in this quandary. It sounded like a good idea for a number of reasons. First, it would, at the very least, be an attempt at doing something different and not sitting through the same painful meeting week after week. Second, it would most likely get some activity un-stuck. Finally, some of the deliverables that had been languishing for so long could be brought to completion. There were a lot of benefits to going above him.

The downside was that this colleague and I had worked well together for a number of years. It was only in recent months that he began struggling to get things done. Escalating to his boss had the potential of making him look bad, and I would potentially lose a valuable ally. That plan may have worked for the short-term, but it could have backfired on me in the long run.

I had to weigh my options carefully. The risk of jeopardizing our long-term relationship was not worth the short-term gain of a few deliverables. I needed to come up with a different approach that would solve both the here and now problem, and allow us to continue to work well together in the future. Here’s the path I took:

#1. I Informed Him of My Frustration

The first thing I did was invite him to lunch to have a candid conversation with him. In a nice, non-threatening environment, I shared how frustrating the lack of progress had been over the past few months. I outlined some of the delays, the downstream consequences, and that I didn’t see things getting better anytime soon. I asked him if he was seeing the same thing from his side, and if he could share any insight into why things have been so difficult lately. To my surprise, I learned he was just as frustrated as I was.

#2. See if HE Can Do Anything Differently

Now that the cards were out on the table, it was a good time to help him brainstorm about ways that he could do things differently. I told him about similar experiences I faced in the past and how I was able to work through them. Figuratively, we were sitting on the same side of the table.

#3. Offered to Help on My Side

I then let him know that if there was anything that I or my company could do to assist, to let me know. Sometimes, all it takes to get things moving is a carefully orchestrated set of emails to just the right people. I’ve seen that work effectively a number of times throughout the years; once I’ve established a high level of trust within an organization, I have been able to reach out to resources directly to set up meetings or check on the status of deliverables. Sending such an email and cc’ing my counterpart may be all that is needed to get things unstuck again.

Your goal needs to come across loud and clear. You are not aiming to throw anybody under the bus. You understand that people are busy and being pulled in a million different directions. Rather, your objective is to truly assist in getting the issue resolved so you can all move the project towards completion.

#4. Considered Joint Escalations

Another area we discussed was that of joint escalations, particularly effective when you both need a deliverable from the same 3rd party. A quick call could be coordinated with their boss, your boss, and the 3rd party to reiterate how important it is that something remains on track or comes to completion.

This is a good opportunity to remind everyone involved that the schedule may not just slip for each day that is missed, but that it could slip exponentially more. There are certain slots your company may have open to perform work. If those windows of opportunity are missed, someone else may take them, and push the date much further out than anyone would like.

#5. Document

The chances of something getting done if the person agrees to the activities above are pretty high at this point. But, in the event it still doesn’t happen, know that you can only do so much. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Keep note of all the attempts that have been made to keep things moving forward in the event there are any short-term or selective memories in the future.

Having the same status meeting week after week can become frustrating. Don’t let it get the best of you. Change your approach and work collaboratively with your counterpart to escalate issues that have been around for a long time. He’ll appreciate the assistance and you’ll appreciate being able to mark one more thing off your list!

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