The Elite Manager’s Code: Handling Escalations Like a Ninja

My blog post on Management by Exception (MBE) seems to have struck a chord with readers hungry for a balanced leadership approach. Many saw the benefits of empowering their teams while still maintaining strategic control. However, we also received comments and questions about a crucial aspect of MBE: how to properly manage the escalations or “exceptions” when they do occur.

After all, the entire premise of MBE hinges on your ability to effectively handle those situations that get kicked upstairs. If you fumble the escalations, you risk negating the very autonomy you tried to create. But escalating issues well is an art of its own. Here’s a deeper dive into mastering the exceptions:

Be Selective About What You Escalate

Not every uncertainty or minor hiccup merits your attention. You’ll need to be judicious about what rises to the level of an “exception” requiring escalation. Issues that meet criteria like:

  • High-stakes outcomes (financial, repetational, legal risks).
  • Decisions with major strategic implications.
  • Substantial complexity or cross-functional impacts.
  • Something outside the team’s sphere of knowledge.
  • A persistent obstacle they can’t resolve independently.

As a general rule, focus your engagement on problems that could severely hinder progress or put the business in jeopardy if not handled well. For smaller stuff, encourage your team to work through challenges themselves—it’s a crucial learning experience.

Make Yourself Consistently Available (Within Bounds)

For MBE to work, your team needs confidence you’ll be there when an exception arises. They shouldn’t hesitate to escalate something significant. At the same time, you can’t be a 24/7 on-call resource; that quickly negates the benefits of autonomy.

The solution is to set clear availability windows. Maybe it’s a daily 60-90 minute block when your team knows you’ll be fully present. Or weekly office hours. Or an always-open messaging channel for urgent items.

Coupled with this, have a protocol for true emergencies when things can’t wait for your pre-scheduled availability. Parameters like “For crises only, call me any time” provide a pressure relief valve.

Ask Catalytic Questions

When an issue is escalated to you, resist the urge to immediately take over and start barking orders. Your goal should be to ask thought-provoking questions that catalyse your team’s own problem-solving skills.

Some great catalytic questions:

  • “What solutions have you considered so far?”
  • “What information or resources are you missing?”
  • “What’s the ideal outcome you’re hoping for?”
  • “What would you do if you had to decide right now?”
  • “What precedents or past examples relate to this situation?”

By putting the onus back on them to start exploring solutions, you demonstrate trust in their abilities and foster an environment of psychological safety—where they can engage in candid thinking without fear of rebuke.

At the same time, these questions help you quickly get up to speed on the nuances of the issue so your own guidance has better context.

Provide a Methodology, Not Just an Answer

As a subject matter expert and experienced leader, your team will naturally look to you for clear-cut answers in many of these escalated situations. However, if you simply impose your solution, that’s a missed opportunity. You’ll have resolved one dilemma but failed to equip them for similar challenges down the road.

Instead, aim to provide frameworks, heuristics, and methodologies they can apply themselves now and adapt going forward. Analogies to other circumstances they’re familiar with. Best practices and time-tested principles. Ways to break down complexity into manageable elements.

If you do suggest a specific solution, be overt about explaining your underlying reasoning and decision-making process. Not only does this breed transparency, it also helps transfer valuable knowledge.

Set a collaborative tone by saying things like “Here’s one way I’d approach this…” or “Let’s think through these different options and scenarios together.” Positioning it as a joint sense-making exercise engages them in the methodology and increases their buy-in.

Review and Refine Your Escalation Criteria

Not every escalation will be clear-cut or align perfectly with your pre-defined criteria. Some issues might be grey areas, leaving the team unsure whether they qualify as exceptions. Others may expose gaps or ambiguities in those criteria.

After any significant escalation, take time in your next one-on-one or team meeting to review what happened:

  • Was this situation truly an exception, or could the team have resolved it on their own?
  • What made it confusing to assess whether this met the criteria?
  • Did any new factors emerge that our guidelines don’t cover?
  • How did our process work? What could be improved?

Then refine and re-communicate your criteria based on this feedback loop, continually calibrating everyone’s understanding. This helps reduce excessive escalations that waste time, while still accounting for subtle nuances.

Inevitably, there will be times the criteria still leave some ambiguity. When in doubt, err on the side of empowering your team to make the call themselves. You can always reinforce the right decision thresholds after the fact.

Model Leadership Escalation Yourself

It’s rarely a good look when leaders preach certain behaviours they don’t themselves exemplify. The same goes for escalation.

Your team takes cues from how you, their direct manager, handle decisions that are outside your personal purview. Do you brazenly make unilateral calls without looping in your own boss? Then they’ll think that’s okay. Do you involve others appropriately? Then they’re likely to follow suit.

Be overt about showing examples of when you escalate things: “This is a decision that requires sign-off from our VP, so I’m going to run it up the chain before finalising anything.” Describe your rationale and escalation processes.

Not only does this reinforce the importance and normality of escalation, it breeds transparency and trust between you and your team. They see you’re not hypocritically hoarding all decision-making authority.

Ultimately, Management by Exception is a partnership where you and your team uphold parallel responsibilities. You create the space for them to spread their wings through empowerment and autonomy. They take that opportunity seriously, keeping you informed and escalating things that rightly require your expertise and guidance.

By establishing clear escalation guidelines and demonstrating masterful handling of exceptions, you’ll maintain a balanced control system where no one feels rudderless nor micromanaged. Your team charts their own course confidently, knowing you’re there to keep them safely on track.