10 Reasons Leaders Get Dragged Into Problems Unnecessarily And What To Do About It

My clients, readers, and audiences complain frequently about getting dragged into issues that ought to be resolved without their help. Every time an issue is escalated one, two, three, even more levels, the cost is significant. “Why can’t people just solve these problems themselves?” they ask.


Well, you can’t eliminate a problem without eliminating its cause so here are the 10 most frequent causes of unnecessary escalation.

1. Unclear Priorities

Employees can’t make decisions without understanding the factors that should govern those decisions. Sometimes those factors are project specific – requirements, customer expectations, cost/schedule trade-offs – and sometimes they are company wide and involve strategic priorities – priority accounts, product life-cycle plans, customer service expectations, quality/schedule trade-offs, etc. Without clarity, employees often need to escalate what could be simple decisions.

2. Unclear Options

Every decision involves choosing among options. Employees often hit roadblocks because they don’t know what options they have. Sometimes it’s a matter of policy –  ”Can I issue a discount or rebate to a customer?” Or it could be insufficient information about technology or downstream processes – “Will I hose up the system if they enter data a day late?” And sometime the issue involves subject matter expertise – “Is this hole going to be too big now? Can we get the accuracy need if we make this substitution?” Depending on the situation, ensuring clarity of options may require training on company policy, technical training, better customer requirements, process training, and quick access to experts and reference resources.

3. Unclear Responsibilities

Sometimes employees know exactly how to handle a situation, but they don’t dare. because they are afraid they will step on someone’s toes or ruffle someone’s feathers. Clear responsibilities solve this problem.

4. Mixed Signals

Too often, a company says one thing and does another. The most common example is when employees are told that quality trumps cost and schedule, but then when they hold up a shipment due to concerns about quality, they suffer everything from dagger eyes to official demerits on their next performance review. You can’t expect employees to make decisions when they can feel the wind coming at them from all directions.

5. Controversial Priorities Or Policies

Most employees will refuse to take responsibility for a decision based on priorities or policies they find disagreeable. “You want to fire him for such a trivial reason, than you go ahead and do it. I’m not.” “You want to ship that motorcycle without wheels, go right ahead. I won’t.” “You can tell him he needs to work all weekend because you screwed up. I’m not doing it.”

6. Fear

Fear paralyzes. Fearful employees would much rather others made decisions, especially tough decisions. Have you made them fearful? Do you shoot the messenger? Do you broadcast mixed signals? Do you seek blame instead of lessons and changes that will prevent a recurrence?

7. Lack Of Confidence

Employees may be fully aware of priorities, options, and responsibilities, but still doubt they know enough. A lack of confidence leaves qualified employees searching for confirmation when they could be taking action.  Build their confidence by confirming their knowledge and making it clear they are as ready to make decisions as the people they typically turn to.

8. Inadequate Understanding Of Risks

“But what could go wrong?” Some people neglect to ask this question. You should applaud the ones that do, because good, confident decisions require an understanding of the potential impact of those decisions. Too often, leaders tell employees what to do, but not why.  Always explain why so that you build the awareness, knowledge, and confidence to make decisions without unnecessary escalation.

9. No Authority

Nothing wastes time and degrades employees like a senseless search for a signature or nod. Once employees understand priorities, options, and risks, let them make the decision!

10. “Above My Pay Grade”

Big, risky decisions, especially if compounded by any of the factors above, may simply wind up above the pay grade of the employees on the spot. They don’t want that kind of responsibility and they aren’t paid to take that kind of responsibility. These aren’t the people who will brighten up and thank you if you suggest they step up to the plate. Pay attention. Find someone who feels up to the task and make those responsibilities clear.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will have noticed that the source of unnecessary escalation is always connected to decisions. That’s because it’s the decisions that slow us down and give us opportunities to take the wrong fork. To avoid unnecessary escalation, you need to focus on the decisions. Where are they? Whose are they? What do those decision-makers need to keep things moving quickly and effectively? Support necessary decisions at the source to reduce unnecessary escalation.


This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on January 31st, 2016.

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