Navigating Horizontal Relationships
An underrated challenge of leadership
While autonomy is often emphasized in leadership, operating at an organizational level means shared decision making. We must consider more complexity, find solutions to meet multiple and sometimes competing needs. The ability to work with peers in other areas becomes critical.
At this point in our careers, we’re pretty good at managing up and down. We’re much less experienced with horizontal leadership skills — i.e. working with peers in other areas. In horizontal relationships old paradigms — you’re my boss so you have the final say or I’m your boss so I have the final say — break down. Rather than leaning on conferred power, we must learn to influence. We have to share power and make decisions together. Sometimes we disagree on the course of action. Our needs might conflict — what serves one area well might put added pressure on another. These situations can bring up uncomfortable emotions. Our emotions hijack our brains, making us irrational.
When we’re unaware that we’re in the grip of emotions, our relationships become harder. We move to control. We see it as controlling ourselves but given shared land, this exerts control over others. Lines are drawn, disputes escalate, the conflict becomes further entrenched. When working horizontally, no one wins in control battles.
Being gripped by emotions can also shut us down, harming relationships. We give in as a way to avoid conflict. This also causes problems. When it's a repetitive pattern, the organization becomes lopsided in favor of the more assertive. The team stops trusting us to advocate for their needs, we lose influence. This damages the business and the inhabitants inside it. We even lose self-confidence.
Navigating relationships requires social awareness, which means understanding and managing emotions, which requires self-awareness. It’s like a little nesting doll, opening a piece reveals a hidden part. That's the equation leaders must navigate.
Managing relationships is one of the most taxing parts of leadership. Interactions with others where power must be shared can bring out uncomfortable emotions like nothing else. Most relationships deal with power dynamics and recurrent conflicts. Some co-founders have even turned to couple’s therapy to address conflict. This might sound odd, but it’s a smart decision as compatibility is important for founders. Getting outside support is especially if intractable conflict has set in. Navigating relationships better reduces stress, making our role as a leader more sustainable.
Relationship management is a massive topic. Where to start? It’s tempting to focus on others but in my experience starting with ourselves is the best bet. We’ve got way more control over ourselves than others. Self-awareness is a superpower, especially when it comes to relationships. The doorway to self-awareness is reflection. Packed schedules and sky-high demands mean leaders often have little downtime which means we operate on adrenaline.
Build micro introspection moments into the day. Even having 5 or 10 minutes between meetings can bring patterns to light. We learn to listen deeply, ask questions, revealing hidden information that help us reflect on our interactions with others. From there we can see the impact and assess how we want to shift our behavior. We can see things from a different perspective, giving us compassion for others. We might consider how we’ve been rigid in our thinking, making work more difficult for others. The insights we glean help us shift our approach, allow us to maneuver around conflict so it doesn’t become intractable. When we take new approaches we reduce friction.
When it comes to relationships, rather than follow the whims of emotions or insist our way is right, it goes back to those nesting dolls. To improve horizontal relationships, we need to develop self-awareness. This allows us to manage our emotions so we can work effectively with people with different needs, styles, and motivations. That’s the challenge of leadership, it’s also one of the biggest rewards.
Until next time,