Lateral Leadership: Tips for Leading Colleagues Even If They Don’t Report to You

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The big boss rolls into his parking space, reviews a few reports, fires off follow-up tasks and then goes on his way. It seems like all he has to do is sign off on projects while you struggle to execute them.

What seems like a glamorous leadership position full of respect and authority actually requires the boss to walk a delicate tightrope between motivating employees and growing the company. Careful consideration goes into every decision, and leadership often must spend the day putting out fires.  

Good leadership isn’t easy, but it’s something that can be practiced — even if you don’t have any employees under you. The leadership skills you develop today could set you up for a promotion in the future or make it easier to transition to a management role.

Here’s how you can become a natural leader within your company and motivate your co-workers laterally to work with you on projects.

Job Titles Don’t Correlate to Leadership

You don’t have to have seniority, a fancy job title or permission from the C-suite to be an effective leader.

Consultant Tathagat Varma argues that office leadership values are changing. Effective leaders don’t just push employees to hit their sales goals and collect bonuses; they have real impacts. “Real leadership impact is measured by the ability to cut through the organizational red tape and institutional mental models,” he writes.

As such, people who are viewed as leaders might not be the employees working in the corner office or managing the largest staff, but rather those who get projects done and can make things happen.

Management is harder than you might think it is, writes Dave Stachowiak, host of Coaching for Leaders. He’s seen plenty of people wishing for control or vying for a promotion over their peers, but a job title doesn’t automatically grant authority. Characteristics like strong communication and flexibility make true leaders, not a formal promotion, he says.

So, What Makes a Good Leader?

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Varma’s observations about leaders is also backed by data. Dr. Sunnie Giles recently completed a survey of 195 leaders across 15 countries in which participants were asked to select the most important leadership qualities. Ethics came out No. 1, but the next three characteristics that make a good leader were:

  • Providing goals and objectives with loose direction (59 percent)

  • Clearly communicating expectations (56 percent)

  • Maintaining the flexibility needed to change opinions (52 percent)

All three of these characteristics actually work together to form one unified management strategy. By clearly communicating your end goals while giving your team the flexibility to achieve them on their own, you can let your team self-manage themselves and only turn to you if they need clarification or encounter a problem.

However, failing to maintain good communication and flexibility will have bigger effects than causing your projects to struggle. It will also affect morale.

Failing to let your team make their own decisions can lead to team problems down the line. Otherwise, as Bourree Lam reports, there is a natural stress that develops when you are caught between leading and following orders. Workers without a lot of decision-making power tend to have higher levels of stress and depressive symptoms, and middle managers are the most prone to depression and anxiety, Lam writes.  

Boosting morale is also important for lateral leaders. Failure to motivate people to work with you on projects could make it hard to find people to help you in the future. You co-workers could avoid you or say they’re too busy to join your team.

As you set out to influence your company and take a larger management role, keep in mind that the best leaders communicate their goals and then let their peers and employees make the best decisions to achieve them.

Leading Your Peers Without Formal Authority

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Within your company, you may find yourself managing a team of your peers to complete a project or trying to rally a group of people to achieve your goals. In the best-case scenario, everyone is on board and eager to help.

In the worst-case scenario, your manager has put you in charge, and your co-workers are reluctant to listen to you.   

Liane Davey, author of You First, admits that managing your peers can get awkward, even if you’re only a temporary manager for a project or event. To ease that awkwardness, she recommends a three-step program when you take on this role:

  • Set up one-on-one meetings with each team member. This conversation lets you personalize the request for support and listen to their concerns.

  • Hold a team meeting. Use this hour to get everyone on the same page for the project and build comraderies around a common goal.

  • Explain your work plan and how you expect to manage the project. By clearly explaining your plans and goals, your team members can follow them closely.

Once you have this plan, you can kick off the project on the right foot.

Here are five additional steps you can take before and during the project to increase buy-in and motivate your co-workers to help you:   

1. Share the Big Picture

"Nobody cares about your deadlines; they care about the cause," says George Bradt, author of First-Time Leader.

While your co-workers might offer to help on a project out of the goodness of their hearts, this altruism can run out when their own workloads pile up. By aligning your project needs with the overall company objectives, you can create a team working toward a common goal, not a list of peers helping you get your projects done.   

This is particularly important for mid-level managers. The Center for Creative Leadership explains that these managers are often stuck trying to execute the company’s overall goals while motivating their employees to complete their daily tasks. They’re the most likely to rely on peers to form teams to advance their individual agendas.

2. Tap Into Your Natural Enthusiasm

People are often motivated by emotions instead of facts. By tapping into your natural enthusiasm and charisma, you can draw people in without a formal job title.

“Some of the most influential leaders are the ones whose enthusiasm for the job and work is contagious,” the team at ExecOnline writes. “A leader’s natural energy and enthusiasm is one of the most powerful forms of referent power.”

3. Familiarize Yourself With Your Co-Workers’ Job Duties

If you’re leading a project in areas outside your expertise, make an effort to familiarize yourself with the departments you will work with and their tasks.

“You don’t need to become a technical expert, but you do need to know enough about the details to know where the problems lie,” Wanda Wallace, president and CEO at Leadership Forum Inc., tells the Harvard Business Review.

Consider shadowing your co-workers or their employees for a few hours to learn their processes and pain points. This will help you make better requests in the future and empathize with their workloads.    

4. Help Your Peers Whenever You Can

Working with your peers is a two-way street. If you ask for something, you will be asked for help in the future. If you can offer assistance to team members when they need it, you should be able to reach out to these co-workers for help when the time comes.

“Grow your accounts receivable balance for reciprocity,” Art Petty writes. “If I help you, you have an unspoken obligation to help me at some time. Give first to get later.”

5. Listen to Their Concerns

“Everyone is born with one mouth and two ears,” executive coach Randi Bussin writes.

As company structures flatten, Bussin believes the need to influence people without authority will continue to grow. One of the easiest ways to do that is to be empathic and to listen to your teams. This will draw them to you as a resource, not force them into your orbit because of your demanding nature.  

How to Lead Co-Workers Who Don’t Want to Be Managed

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Your co-workers might not be thrilled that you’re taking the lead on a project.

This could be because they wanted to lead it themselves, or simply because they don’t respond well to change. Even the most enthusiastic and empathic leaders can face roadblocks when people aren’t eager to participate.  

Greg Satell references 19th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant when asked about managing people. Kant, he says, believed that people shouldn’t be treated as a means to an end, but rather ends themselves. When you treat your co-workers like stepping stones or tools to get what you want, you’re signaling that you hope to benefit from them without giving something in return.

“When you treat people as ends in themselves, you make their goals your own,” Satell writes. “You want communities to be invested in your success, rather than just tolerate your existence.”

How can Kant apply to difficult co-workers who seem intent on making your life hell?

First, you need to identify what kind of co-workers you’re dealing with so you can better understand their motivations. Then, you can work to align your goals with theirs.

Writing at Oprah.com, Suzy Welch offers a survival guide for identifying the five kinds of terrible co-workers in the wild.

  • Boss Haters: These people resist any type of traditional authority and will resent you for trying to manage them.

  • Stars: High-performance players can develop large egos or become bullies because they think they will always have management’s approval.

  • Sliders: These are the former stars who are resting on their laurels. They’re done working hard and just want to get by.

  • Pity Partiers: These team members will have an excuse for everything. Some crisis or problem will always keep them from doing their work.

  • Self-Promoters: While not yet Stars, Self-Promoters will do everything they can to get noticed by management — even taking credit for projects they barely touched.

If you can identify the motivation of your teammates, you can tailor your message to enlist their help. This might mean giving certain employees the praise they need or pairing co-workers who can motivate each other.  

Getting to the Root of the Problem

If a co-worker is openly hostile about your project, there’s likely a reason for the pushback.

Pamela Rucker of the Technology Advisory Council encourages people to evaluate why their co-workers are exhibiting toxic behavior. That co-worker might be nervous about change or feel as though you’re encroaching on their turf.

In some cases, the problem stems not from hostility, but simply a difference in work style. By understanding why you’re not getting along, you can better work toward a solution.

Upper Management Sets the Stage for Collaboration

Your management style likely comes from what you have seen other people do in your company. The same can be said for the co-workers who push back on you. They might not have support from their superiors, which makes them unlikely to give it to you.

“Middle managers mimic the behavior of their leaders, and they need stronger role models to show them how it’s done,” Heather Huhman writes at Entrepreneur. “Molding better middle managers ultimately comes down to being a better senior manager.”

Turning to your manager can help if your co-workers role in the project is mission-critical. They might have influence and impact to motivate them that you haven’t developed yet.

The first project you lead isn’t going to be flawless. Leadership takes time and requires employees to fail and get back up again. However, if you learn from your mistakes and constantly try to improve, you could become one of the most influential people in the company — regardless of your job title.

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