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How to get better at leading your peers

And why it is so hard

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Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden inspired millions of her peers to join her . Photo from Ulrica Loeb on Flikr.

You are called to lead laterally all the time. You may need to negotiate the division of tasks with a colleague. You may need to align on strategy with another department. Or you have an idea that can help the business, but a different team needs to implement it. 

Leading your peers feels a lot harder than leading your direct reports. Many executives struggle to effectively influence across the organization. 

Greta Thunberg opened up my eyes to what is possible in terms of leading without authority. A 16-year old influenced a million students to join her on the streets on her quest for a better planet. Imagine what we could all do if we became better at leading our peers.

To understand how can executives lead laterally, I turned to Petros Oratis, one of the world’s experts on the topic. Oratis has been doing extensive research, including his doctoral thesis, on lateral leadership. He is also the co-founder of Lateral Space, a lateral leadership consultancy.

Why is it so hard to lead your peers?

I asked Oratis for the reasons it is so hard to lead laterally. He explained that it requires a lot more sophistication and effort to be collaborative than to be competitive. Also, the key barrier is fear.

When we hesitate to take a leadership role amongst our peers, we are usually afraid of:

  • Being held accountable for what we suggest. 
  • Failing to convince our peers and therefore damaging our self-esteem.
  • Being seen as a self-promoter, being envied, or being rejected by the group.
  • Stepping on someone’s toes or getting into conflict.

No wonder we hesitate. There is always a risk when you step up. Thunberg faced backlash and criticism. She was also nominated for a Nobel prize. To lead laterally and help our company and career in the process, we need to surpass psychological and sociological barriers.

How do you know that your team is avoiding lateral leadership?

Oratis explained that there are three types of avoidance of lateral leadership: invisible, visible and socially acceptable. There can be invisible avoidance when team members are unanimous and never engage in productive conflict. Or, they may tend to postpone decisions so that they do not have to participate in uncomfortable discussions.

Team members can avoid lateral leadership visibly by always escalating to the boss. Or by arguing that there is no reason to collaborate.

Finally, there are the socially acceptable ways to avoid lateral leadership. Asking people to vote or flipping a coin can be signs of avoidance. Rather than having the experts convince their peers, the team is trying to jump to a decision quickly, as it feels more comfortable. 

Do you recognize any of these lateral leadership avoidance behaviors happening in your team? What is the cost on the quality of your decisions?

How do you get better at lateral leadership?

When I worked at Google, I was a member of the global sales team. I would agree with my global clients on the projects, and then I would have to convince the local Google sales teams to execute.

There was a challenge. The local teams did not report to me. There was no option to escalate as our hierarchies were meeting one level below Google’s CEO. What’s more, Google had a bottom-up culture favoring the local teams. There was an inherent resistance towards “global” telling you what to do. So, if I wanted to be successful, I had to master leading without authority.

Here are some tips that I have seen work and could be useful to you.

  • Focus on a higher purpose: The hardest thing in leading without authority is allowing ourselves to take leadership. What helps here is to stay focused on a higher purpose for the organization, beyond individual responsibility. When Greta Thunberg speaks, she talks about our planet, our future, and our youth. She is intentional about not making any money out of her activism so as not to appear self-interested. How can you help focus your peers on the common inspirational goals that are higher than their individual interests? 
  • Lead by example. When Thunberg tried to convince her classmates to strike and skip school as a protest for climate change, nobody was interested. So, she decided to go ahead and do it on her own. Less than a year later, more than a million students were striking on the streets inspired by her example. It is not enough to lead by example. You need to be vocal and visible about what you are doing. How can you take initiative and share more of what you are doing with your peers?
  • Build trust and strong relationships with your peers. What I learned at Google, was that dedicating time to build a relationship with my local peers from the first day, was worth it. I would travel to meet them in person, or I would invite them to offsites. The more you reveal of yourself and the more you keep your word, the more trust you build. People will not do what you ask them to do if they do not trust you.
  • Understand the other person’s agenda. How can you position your ideas in the prism of your peers’ agenda? When I pitched a project to my local counterparts, I would always position it as something that would help them rather than me. I explained how it would save them time, open doors, or boost their revenue.
  • Retain a 60/40 balance between being a peer and being a team lead. I learned this by Oratis, as this is what he recommends to his clients. I started sharing this rule with the teams I coach. They were surprised initially as this was the opposite of what they thought they should be doing. But, after they reflected, they got it. If you can influence strategic decisions that are made in the team you are a member, you help your direct reports best. 
  • Elevate the discussion from personal tension to organizational conflict. Many times, an organization pursues two contradictory objectives at the same time. The individuals get entangled in conflicts that are not personal but belong to the organization  — product against sales, marketing against legal, etc. By drawing attention to the organizational conflicts and paradoxes, you can team up with your peers to solve the issue. You do not have to let the issue come between you.

Conclusion

Lateral leadership is one of the essential skills to master to get things done in any organization. In this article, we explored why we find it so hard to influence our peers. We looked into how we can spot when a team avoids lateral leadership. And we saw some tips on how to become more successful at leading without authority.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old from Sweden led millions into the streets and create a chain reaction of impact. You can also inspire change by focusing more outside the team you manage and getting better at leading laterally. 


Caterina is an executive coach & founder of The Leaderpath. Join her monthly email for pioneering leaders, with resources for impact and fulfillment here

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