Does Lateral Leadership Really Work in Business?

Leadership can mean a number of different things to different people. Using principles of lateral leadership is one way to remain flexible and dynamic in your approach to management. This article reviews exactly what lateral leadership is, why it’s become such a common term in the business world, and how its principles stand to impact your industry. We’ll explore the pros and cons of lateral leadership so that you can make an informed decision about whether you should incorporate it into your organization’s plans and goals. 

What Is Lateral Leadership?

Many organizations have a top-down (or vertical) leadership strategy in which several lower level employees report to just a few managers and leaders who are higher up in the chain of command. There’s a designated work flow in which employees report to management. This style of leadership can be great, because it’s organized, easy to understand, and it creates a working hierarchy so that employees are aware of social and professional expectations while at work. 

Lateral leadership, on the other hand, invites people across different levels of an organization to take ownership and accountability for projects and strategic design regardless of where they might fall in their company’s overall hierarchical structure. This involves a culture of trust in which managers are willing to let employees work independently, manage and report to each other. 

Implementing lateral leadership into a business can enhance overall organizational communication, efficiency, productivity and creativity because it stops ideas from becoming bottlenecked as they flow up the chain of command. 

At its core, lateral leadership means that employees work together as a system, and this gives everyone opportunities to act as leaders and exert influence for the purpose of the overall health of the organization. It also helps organizations remain flexible, especially in times of crisis. 

Why Has Lateral Leadership Become a Business Buzzword?

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage on globally, disruptions to supply chains are causing problems at all levels of business, so a key focus in leadership discourse in recent months has centered around ways in which leaders can help their organizations remain flexible, and thus, adaptable and profitable throughout crises. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on leaders, HR and executive teams to find ways to solve business problems, support employees and keep operations flowing smoothly.

Many leading business consultants agree that outstanding leaders and businesses are those that break down some of the more traditional hierarchical expectations in order to promote diversity of thought, stronger inter-departmental communication, enhanced employee morale, etc. They argue that when employees are given more freedom to collaborate and take on responsibility, more genuine leaders will start to shine. These individuals will help lead others on their teams, contributing to stronger departments and companies. In addition, management and lower-level employees alike can stand to benefit from reduced burnout when more people share responsibilities. 

Of course, this can all be achieved with the more traditional vertical styles of leadership, as well. There are also ways in which organizations can incorporate methodologies of lateral leadership into their own structures without going all in, because realistically, that’s not always an option when a business is already navigating change. 

By focusing on the following, companies can retain their traditional vertical leadership structures while also promoting and encouraging enhanced sharing of ideas that borrow from lateral leadership.

1. Build a Strong, People-First Culture

Most successful organizations have company cultures that are rooted in firmly and widely shared beliefs that are upheld by employees at all levels. Lateral leadership also promotes engaging employees across departments and hierarchical levels. Culture is supported by the organization’s strategies and business structures. What this accomplishes is to enhance feelings of belonging amongst all employees. Individuals also work with more confidence and everyone feels valued. This helps to reduce stress and tension in the workplace, reduces turnover and increases productivity. 

2. Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

There are still a lot of unspoken biases that affect the way we work in today’s business world. It’s important that all companies focus on enhancing their diversity and belonging efforts from the top. This can be done by diversifying recruiting and hiring efforts, promoting mentorship programs that promote space for minorities, making space for employees to be heard regarding their thoughts on diversity and belonging, and implementing diversity-focused training programs. These actions will help to create a structure that supports building on current efforts so that your organization stands out in today’s dynamic world. All employees can be involved in diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging efforts, regardless of rank or role. 

3. Invest in Soft Skills Training

Soft skills are the intangible skills that everyone has and can develop. Soft skills impact how they interact with others and do their work. This includes things like communication, emotional intelligence, problem solving, etc. Most people have a few soft skills that they are naturally great at, but many of us still have room to grow in some areas. 

Soft skills, like hard skills, can be trained. No matter one’s current leadership level, it’s important that everyone be trained in soft skills to make strong potential leaders. This speaks to the lateral leadership philosophy, and the best way to improve soft skills across all levels of your organization is to invest in high-quality and effective training that allows your employees to grow and practice honing their less-dominant soft skills. 

4. Support Employee Wellness Outside of Work

The pandemic shook most of us to our core, threatening our senses of stability, future and confidence at work. This led human resources organizations to take a critical look at how employees are best supported in times of crisis so that when things are more stable, they can continue to really shine in their jobs. What they found is that employees who are supported both at work and outside of work tend to perform better and remain more adaptable in times of change. 

Employees can be offered support such as Employee Assistance Programs. These programs provide opportunities to work with professionals on mental health, monthly stipends to use on wellness endeavors, gym memberships, financial and legal support options, etc. When well supported, employees are more likely to share responsibilities to get things done and stay strong through times of change or uncertainty. 

Why HR Personnel Should Be Aware of Lateral Leadership Trends

There’s no doubt that lateral leadership styles can offer a lot of growth potential to organizations, and this is why lateral leadership has become such a strong trend in the business world. Certain industries, such as marketing, development and other creative spheres have found that incorporating lateral leadership into how they do business has allowed for a stronger flow of ideas that drives organizational success. It is argued that lateral leadership also helps to cut down on bureaucratic messes and red tape headaches. This can be useful in many HR departments. 

Furthermore, when it comes to supporting an organization through crisis or periods of change/growth, experts tend to agree that lateral leadership helps teams to build impressive talent pools so that the organization always has strong talent to fall back on in hard times. Since this responsibility often falls to Human Resources, such teams may stand to benefit from incorporating lateral thinking into their day-to-day work.

If the organization as a whole decides to eventually build it into their existing leadership structures, HR will be prepared because they will already be used to the ideas and will be able to provide strong support when it comes to making policy changes and providing training to employees. 

What’s important to keep in mind is that over the past 15-20 years, overall business leadership structures in the United States have shifted towards more lateral management styles, at least incrementally. This trend is likely not going to go away, and it will continue to build as more companies adapt this style. It may be straight-forward for one organization to incorporate, but it can take a more matrix-like strategy to get down in larger organizations.

Pros and Cons of Lateral Leadership

The decision of whether or not to incorporate lateral leadership into the way your organization approaches its structures is a highly nuanced one, so it’s important to consider the basic pros and cons of this type of methodology and how they might factor into your industry. Keep in mind that lateral leadership can be implemented small-scale, or it can be implemented large-scale over time to revolutionize the way a company does business. How that will work should be up to executive leadership and HR business partners. 

Pros of Lateral Leadership:
  • Women and minorities have access to more leadership opportunities in male-dominated work spaces.
  • Employees feel more aligned with their company’s purpose and mission.
  • Employees strengthen their feelings of empathy and understanding towards one another and work better together.
  • Individuals who haven’t received promotions to leadership roles begin to shine.
  • Strong working relationships are established and ideas begin to flow more freely.
  • Departments or individuals build credibility by showing their best work.
  • Employees feel more motivated to contribute to the overall success of their companies.
Cons of Lateral Leadership:
  • Ideas may not always be appropriately tracked.
  • Employees may not know exactly to whom they should report in an emergency or crisis that alters day-to-day expectations, which can be confusing.
  • Lateral leadership can be challenging and expensive to implement, especially for larger organizations that have a long history with vertical management.
  • Employees might try and use disciplinary authority over one another even when inappropriate because of older, more established hierarchical norms in the workplace.
  • Company culture may suffer if an organization transitions too quickly away from vertical leadership structures.

Where to Go From Here

There’s no doubt that lateral leadership is trending for a reason. While it may work wonderfully in some industries, it might not be for everyone. Consider viewing it more as a framework to give your organization something to strive toward. It doesn’t have to be a huge systematic change that you need to make immediately. Take the information in this article and consider how it could be useful to your organization. From there, you can plan strategic steps to engage more of your employees as leaders, keeping records of how these steps work out and building upon that as time passes. The point of lateral leadership is to help companies remain agile, not to cause roadblocks. 

Looking to Improve Employee Soft Skills Across the Board?

Let’s face it – the stronger your employees’ soft skills are, the more your organization will fall in line with leadership trends like lateral leadership. To get started, check out this article on “5 Leadership Soft Skills Your Managers Need to Empower Your Workforce and Dominate Your Market.” Our best advice is to take your time, do your research and trust your leaders and employees to have your organization’s best interests at heart. 

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