Honing Your Lateral Management Skills


While I’ve worked in my current agency for almost seven years, I recently moved to a new team that was formed through a recent reorganization. The reorg not only focused on rearranging teams and people on an organizational chart; it sought to change the culture and how people worked together.

My division, in particular, sought to be more of a matrix organization, where all team members would work together, focusing on the project and not the organizational component. This type of shift requires not only a commitment from organizational leaders to live the new organizational culture; it also requires them to acknowledge the challenging moments and interactions as staff also shift to the new way of doing business.

One particular instance stands out for me. Someone on my team was the de facto lead on a particular project. Management set the direction and expectation, however really left the team members, all peers, to work through the project and deliver results. As the project progressed, management thought the team was progressing well and surpassed expectation. However, in one-on-one conversations with team members, each expressed a level of discomfort, especially when they told someone what to do or explained their role on the team. As one person described it, they were “managing laterally”, or exerting influence without authority, others on their team.

Though it would have been easy for any member of the management team to jump in and reassert the direction the project lead was taking, we opted to take a “wait and see” approach. We’re all aware that this wasn’t an easy process, but there were distinct benefits of building capacity around staffs’ ability to manage laterally. The two main benefits were networking with peers throughout the agency, and constructive persuasion and negotiation. Networking can lead to coalition building and establishing buy-in for various initiatives. Constructive persuasion and negotiation enable projects to move forward without people feeling unheard or bulldozed. While it is natural for managers to hone these skills, the benefit to the team grows exponentially when all members of the team (i.e., not just managers) can build and use these skills.

As a manager, it can be difficult to take a step back and let your team run with ideas or manage a project slightly differently than you would. However, by giving them the opportunity to run with a project, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the result or the information they get through their own networking and coalition building.

In addition, by giving them the opportunity to grow these skills, it gives them an added incentive to work through the initial uncomfortable moments of learning how to effectively manage laterally. In the long run, both you and your team benefit from these skills. First, as a manager you no longer have to rely on your network and negotiating skills to support your team, rather they (and you) will benefit from the network they build. Second, these skills can have a cumulative impact on the positive work that your team is doing. That is, if your staff successfully hones these skills, then each project moving forward will be easier, and may require less hands-on time from management. Finally, you will be privy to different pieces of information shared through your staff’s network, making it easier to pivot and set a new (successful) direction for the team.

Shivani Sharma is a career Federal employee who has an interest in the role in networking plays in career development and advancement. Throughout her career, she has served as a both a formal and informal mentor at work and has volunteered in career mentorship programs. In 2010 she spearheaded a summer career mentorship program for college students, which is still active today. Finally, this interest has lead to founding a new startup (Lateral-Me, launching Summer 2016) that will increase lateral career opportunities in the Federal government.

Shivani Sharma is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply