top of page
  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

A Process for Productive Escalation

Organizations must be agile and responsive to thrive in today’s business environment. Internally, increasing complexity keeps creating more interdependencies. It is only possible to meet these challenges with higher levels of collaboration. Yet, people often do not have the ‘collaboration quotient’ to resolve cross-functional issues as they crop up.

Fuelled by the pressure to perform, conflicts emerge sporadically, some smouldering below the surface and others breaking out in the open. Tempers flare, and the teams involved start to resent their counterparts. Unresolved issues accumulate and cause increased tensions. The managers involved often don’t know how to resolve the issues that stand between them. Relationships become frayed, creating a more toxic atmosphere and reducing workplace effectiveness. Stumped by what they see as the inability to find solutions, managers often beat a path to their respective leader’s door and complain about their counterparts in the other functions. The leader receiving these complaints then feels obliged to approach the leader of the other function to complain about their team’s lack of collaboration. Most often, this response only leads to making things worse.

Should this sound familiar, an effective response is to implement the Productive Escalation process to generate meaningful solutions and enable collaboration.

The solution

  • Agree to disagree despite attempts to resolve.

  • Jointly develop an outline of the two managers’ positions highlighting where they agree and where they disagree with the reasons supporting the two positions.

  • Jointly refer the matter to the two leaders to whom the managers with the disagreement report (or one leader if they report to the same person).

  • Meet with the four people involved; the decision to resolve the matter is up to the two leaders (if no resolution can be arrived at, it is escalated in the same manner to the next level above).

  • The managers involved are fully accountable for implementing their leaders’ decisions.

The problems identified must be resolved within 5 days of launching the process.


  • Old habits die hard. The launching of the “productive escalation process” must apply organization-wide as ‘the way we do things around here.’ To reinforce this, leaders must stop listening to complaints from their team members about other teams. When approached by members of their team to complain about other teams, they are immediately reminded to go through the steps of the Productive Escalation” process.

  • When the process is launched, it is explained that managers give up the right to ‘decide’ what needs to be done when managers come to leaders with an outline of their disagreement. The leaders now make the decisions required based on the information they receive from the managers. This aspect of the process provides a strong incentive for managers to resolve their issues proactively to avoid the risk of leaders making decisions with which they disagree.

  • The need to find resolutions to the issues within 5 days is fundamental to the effectiveness of this process. Otherwise, conditions continue to deteriorate. Managers who do not get along and have a problem getting over the frustrations they have been experiencing will have the propensity to postpone working through the process steps.

The impact of implementing this process

  • Experience with this process has shown that a significant proportion of the managers engaging in delineating where they agree and disagree come up with solutions they had not seen previously. When that happens, there is no need to go through the following steps.

  • The process of working on the agreement/disagreement outline contributes to developing leadership skills that can be useful in other contexts.

  • When rigorously applied, this process encourages managers to proactively resolve the issues for fear of ending up with decisions they do not favour.

  • Forcing the resolution of previously ‘unresolved issues’ eases tensions in the workplace and makes it easier to resolve problems as they present themselves. The settling of unresolved matters between teams fosters greater collaboration.


bottom of page