Lateral leadership: The leadership method of the future?

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Lateral leadership: The leadership method of the future?

In earlier times, cooperation in most companies was characterised by a clear hierarchy. The superiors were authorized to give instructions and the employees had to carry out the instructions. This type of leadership no longer works in the modern world, where self-fulfilment and satisfaction play a major role. An alternative that is becoming increasingly popular is lateral leadership.

Lateral leadership: How does it work?

The term "lateral" goes back to the Latin word "latus", which translates as "side". Here it becomes clear that the classic hierarchy (from top to bottom) is dissolving. Instead, employees are guided from the side - i.e. at eye level and on an equal footing.

Lateral management not only involves the dissolution of hierarchies. All areas of the company interlock more closely with this concept. The boundaries between the individual departments become blurred, so that the company grows together into a single unit. Work often takes place across projects and departments in so-called competence teams.

The aim of hierarchy-free leadership is to create a common framework for profitable cooperation. To do this, managers must incorporate the interests of all employees. This requires a certain amount of coordination. Not infrequently, compromises and negotiations become necessary.

In addition, the manager must gently steer the employee in the desired direction without exerting pressure. Empathy is needed to achieve this, People skills and negotiation skills. Without these skills, lateral leadership is not possible.

The most important instruments of lateral leadership

Lateral leadership does not mean that there is no more leadership at all. It simply no longer takes place from the top down, but at eye level. For this to work, compliance with certain rules is indispensable.

The following four coordination mechanisms are used in lateral leadership:


All employees jointly define the essential principles for a harmonious working atmosphere as well as for smooth work processes. The rules are binding for everyone. The manager is responsible for monitoring compliance.


Where people meet, different opinions also clash. However, this does not have to have a negative effect. In lateral leadership, people remain in an exchange so that the different perspectives complement each other. Together, the values are defined that are essential for the achievement of the Corporate Goal are important.


The manager ensures that the team interacts with each other and problems openly addresses. In the event of misunderstandings, the manager takes on the role of mediator. Compromises are now sought together.


Power and prestige within the team are enhanced by Charismahumanity and expertise. Means of pressure such as warnings and the like are not used.

Instruments of lateral leadership

View the employee as an individual

The lateral management style focuses on balancing interests. The manager's task is to remove obstacles to work and to promote the motivation of all employees. To do this, it is essential to deal with the individual people. This is the only way to determine their individual wishes, competencies and motives.

Identify and remove obstacles

Sometimes there are factors that inhibit work performance and motivation. These obstacles must be identified and removed. The manager should therefore keep in regular contact with the employees and inquire about any difficulties.

The following measures are suitable for removing obstacles:

  • Recognition of good work performance
  • Ensuring a pleasant working atmosphere
  • Cultivating positive interpersonal relationships
  • Reasonable equipment of the workplaces
  • Imparting specialist knowledge to employees
  • defense against external stressors

Promote motivation

The best way to motivate an employee depends on his or her personality. Therefore, one measure cannot be applied to the entire team. While some employees like to be the centre of attention, others are reserved and prefer quiet detail work. The manager responds to personal wishes as much as possible in order to promote motivation.

As mentioned at the beginning, lateral leadership requires a high degree of empathy and knowledge of human nature. In professional life, however, the framework conditions for the one hundred percent fulfilment of personal wishes are not always given. But even in critical situations there are methods to increase motivation.

These include:

  • Conveying meaning: To what extent can the unpopular task still contribute to the achievement of personal desires in the long term?
  • Loyalty: The employee is committed to the manager he respects, even though the work task is repugnant to him.
  • Appeal to a sense of duty: Employees are reminded of their responsibility to the company.
  • Deal: Offer an attractive quid pro quo in return for completing the unpopular task.

Differences between disciplinary and lateral leadership

The most succinct difference between disciplinary and lateral leadership is in the exercise of authority. The disciplinary style of leadership is based on the pessimistic notion that man is basically self-centered and work-shy. External pressure is needed to make him perform his duties. Basically, the employee is viewed as a child in need of guidance.

In disciplinary managed companies there is a clear hierarchy. Superiors issue instructions and monitor compliance with them. They also check the quality of work of individual employees. Undesirable behaviour is stopped by the threat of consequences under labour law. There is (usually) little consideration of the wishes, competencies and specialist areas of work.

In contrast, lateral leadership is based on the voluntary engagement of employees. The lateral leadership style advocates the assumption that employees are adults who are capable of, Assume responsibility. A lateral manager strives to create a basis of trust and to reconcile different interests.

Let's summarize the main differences between disciplinary and lateral leadership once again:

  • Authority from above vs. leadership at eye level
  • Threat of consequences vs. motivation
  • Work instructions vs. personal responsibility
  • Threats of punishment vs. personal exchange

Another important distinction is the leadership role. Whereas in the disciplinary leadership style the superior's power is based solely on his or her position, in the lateral leadership style the leadership role is usually assigned on a project-related basis.

The differences mentioned above are discussed in detail in the following textbook: Practical handbook of the middle class (Chapter: Personnel management - Between distance and personal closeness) - Fred G. Becker

Advantages and disadvantages of lateral management

Working under strict hierarchical conditions makes very few people happy. This proves following research.

Particularly in younger companies, the concept of lateral leadership is therefore increasingly gaining acceptance. However, whether the leadership style brings the desired success, both for the company and for the employees, depends on several factors. Lateral leadership undoubtedly represents a major (organizational) challenge.

It is therefore advisable to take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages.

Lateral leadership: advantages for companies and employees

Advantages for the company:

In simplified terms: Lateral Leadership makes for satisfied employees. Satisfied employees are in turn more creative, productive and loyal. The company benefits from this.

Advantages for employees

  • more creativity
  • Promotion of self-realization
  • greater decision-making freedom
  • job satisfaction
  • less pressure and Fears (= fewer mental illnesses)

Burnout and depression are big issues in the modern workplace. From 1997 to 2019, the rate of sickness due to mental health diagnoses has increased almost trebled.

Lateral leadership could be an approach to counteract this development.

Lateral leadership: disadvantages for companies and employees

Despite all Advantages should also include the possible disadvantages of the lateral leadership style. must not go unmentioned. Thus, in the absence of authority to issue instructions, a great deal is demanded of employees. In addition to technical competence, this primarily concerns organizational aspects. Since hierarchical structures no longer exist, tasks cannot be delegated if necessary.

If the concept is not one hundred percent thought through, serious problems can arise. It is imperative that all employees are able to live up to the trust and responsibility placed in them. There is no denying that a lack of hierarchy carries the risk that some people will only think of themselves and work half-heartedly - after all, there are no consequences to fear.

The lateral manager also faces a major challenge. Leadership without authority is not as easy as it might sound at first. Lateral managers must be stable personalities who do not allow themselves to be ruffled by anything. In contrast to disciplinary managers, they have less leeway at their disposal.

Common conflicts of lateral leadership

Common conflicts of lateral leadership and how to solve them

Especially in the context of lateral leadership, constructive criticism is essential. However, points of conflict lurk here. Basically, no one likes to be criticized. In the worst case, the employee concerned feels ashamed, humiliated or misunderstood. But this does not have to be the case!

As a lateral manager, it is important to apply the basic rules of constructive criticism to master:

  • Criticism is always done in private and never in the presence of colleagues!
  • The lateral leader delivers necessary criticism in a timely manner.
  • The criticism should be appropriately dosed, i.e. nothing is glossed over or unnecessarily dramatized.
  • The lateral leader questions the incident before seeking the conversation.
  • The employee concerned shall be given the opportunity to comment on the facts of the case.

Conflict source undesirable change in behaviour

Sometimes employees do not behave according to the established rules and thus damage the success of the project or company. While disciplinary superiors can now counteract this with an appraisal interview, target agreement and result control, the lateral manager must use other aids. This includes the investigation of the problem as well as the motivation of the employee.

Why does the person act the way he does? Can't he or doesn't he know better? Are there unspoken conflicts that rob the person of motivation? Once the lateral manager has determined the cause, remedial action is taken within the scope of possibilities.

Conflicts of interest

There are many different types of conflicts of interest. It can be interpersonal differences as well as unfair performance appraisals or the distribution of resources. As a lateral manager, you should seek to talk with employees to get to the bottom of the disagreements.

Successful leaders are able to reconcile the parties and lead them to pull together (again) in the interest of the company.

How does lateral leadership become a success?

Whether lateral leadership can be a success depends largely on the people who work together. If not everyone is pulling in the same direction, the concept is quickly doomed to failure. The employees must independent and can work dutifully. Aligning the four key components of communication, understanding, trust and power is essential.

Every company that wants to integrate lateral leadership must first analyze the organization and possible distribution of tasks. A clear structure forms the basis of lateral leadership. The manager should deal with how he or she succeeds in gaining authority and, above all, trust without having the authority to issue directives. Answering the following three W-questions can help here:

  • What do I want?
  • How do I want to lead?
  • What expectations will be placed on me?

How to learn to lead your team successfully

Lateral leadership places high personal demands on the manager in particular. Indecisiveness or a fickle character have a negative effect on the entire team as well as on the work result. If you are a lateral leader or want to introduce the concept to your team, it is advisable to deal with your own personal development.

Therefore we would like to offer you our Business Coaching Webinar to the heart. We will familiarize you with various proven coaching methods. However, the webinar is not only suitable for executives, but also for people who want to self-employed or want to pursue a career as a coach. You may not yet be a manager and are working towards a promotion. In this case too our webinar the right thing for you.

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Reviewed by Dr. med. Stefan Frädrich

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