Don’t Pass the Buck

Reality Check: When one of my managers comes to me with a problem that involves another department, I have taken the stance that he or she should work it out with the other party. If they cannot work it out on their own, I offer to sit down with both of them. However, I know at least one manager who thinks I should intervene on his behalf and probably sees me as passing the buck. Do I need to explain the value of resolving the issue independent of my judgment, or am I passing the buck too soon?

Learning Opportunity:

First, let me tell you that, in principle, I think you’re doing exactly what a leader should do. In most organizations, leaders enable their employees’ weakness at holding crucial conversations by allowing them to escalate far too many issues. The measure of a high-accountability organization is NOT—as most leaders think—the quality of downward (boss-to-direct report) conversations that get held, but the quantity of horizontal (peer-to-peer) conversations that get held. Building a culture where people are both willing and able to address crucial issues is the essence of a high performance team. 

Now let me play devil’s advocate.

There are times when it is your job to hold a coaching conversation on your employee’s behalf. Here are two I can think of:

When the solution requires resources or authority unavailable to the employee. For example, if a colleague chronically fails to perform and key contributors to the problem are policies, new software, overtime approvals, or other things the employee cannot address, it may be wise for you to at least participate in the conversation—and possibly lead it. 

However, I encourage you to use a policy I learned —Mutually Agreed Escalation—that is, both parties have to discuss the decision to escalate, and cooperate in doing so. This will help you assure the employee has dealt with any elements of the concerns he or she should deal with at his or her own level and only involves you in those issues you should uniquely address.

When it is a "relationship" conversation. There are three levels of conversations you need to have:

• Content: An immediate problem that is generally occurring for the first time. 

• Pattern: A problem that is becoming chronic. 

• Relationship: A more fundamental challenge dealing with competence, trust, or respect—and generally calling for a change in relationship if a solution cannot be developed. 

One of the best practices I’ve seen leaders use is to teach this concept to employees and help them understand that it is their responsibility to deal with content and pattern problems. The first time something happens, they should address it at their level. If—after receiving assurances it will not happen again—it happens again, they should address the pattern. However, if they have candidly addressed the problem at those two levels and do not see appropriate change, then they should escalate the problem. However, in the healthiest of situations, they should also notify the other person(s) when they have the pattern conversation that if the solution does not work, they will need to escalate to find some other answer. That lets the other party understand all of the consequences of noncompliance—hopefully adding motivation to follow through—and avoids the accusation that they are simply pulling a power play when they later escalate the problem to you.

For example, let’s say I have a colleague who is supposed to fill out progress reports before the end of his shift. I notice that on occasion, he fails to do so, so I have a crucial conversation with him. Things are good for a couple of weeks, then it begins again. So I raise the issue of the pattern and check to see if a larger solution is needed. At the end of this conversation I add, “Great, it sounds like we have something that works—but if we can’t reach a solution on our own, I think we should talk about this with our managers. Do you feel the same way? Or is there something else I should do if this doesn’t work?” This statement puts the responsibility where it belongs—on the other person—lets the other person know what can be done at your level before escalating, and helps him or her see your point of view in needing to escalate after this attempt.

Good luck in your wise effort to create a culture of candid and coaching conversations.

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