Why It’s So Important to Stop Telling People to Stay in Their Lane


Whenever a particular bit of business jargon comes up multiple times in the same week from different clients, I always wonder what ripples are moving through the corporate zeitgeist!

Are you hearing about people being asked to “stay in their lane”? One conflict-averse vice president described herself as staying in her lane to avoid creating conflict or appearing to be a threat to her colleagues. A second vice president, in a very different organization, was shocked when her boss told her to stay in her lane after he asked for her advice to help make joint projects work better, because he was concerned that her candid comments would distress her colleagues.

And yet a CEO I spoke with last week was worried that his executive team members were staying too much in their own lanes, and that their lack of crossover, traveling, or even curiosity about each other’s work meant that crucial initiatives would not progress as promptly, creatively, or successfully as they could.

When You’re First Starting Out

When you’re still new and learning about your role or function, it makes sense to focus on your own work challenges and to “keep your nose clean,” as my grandfather used to say. It’s respectful to make sure you’re reasonably competent and up to speed on current events before looking across to other lanes and poking into how the people in them should be doing. Paying attention to your own priorities, deliverables, and team members is likely to increase your throughput and your sense of accomplishment. It’s also a way to conserve your mental and physical energy without getting distracted by what everyone else is doing — or trying to be so helpful to others that you lose focus on your own deliverables or your team’s needs.

On the other hand, it always makes sense to be curious about how and why things work the way they do. Wouldn’t any responsible leader consider how you, your team, or your entire organization could do things better together, and how to identify and courteously call out any problems that no one else seems to have labeled or tried to fix?

How to Maintain Flow and Avoid Collisions

When people seem aggravated, uncomfortable, or uncooperative, many people — including senior leaders — may direct them to stay in their own lanes with the hope that eliminating interference will calm everyone down and allow things to start working well again. But this can be a big mistake.

In the face of ongoing conflict, substandard performance, or a lack of progress, just sticking to your own lane may actually exacerbate defensive, protective, or uncollaborative behavior. Complex work demands collaboration. And true collaboration requires sharing and trust and the willingness to open borders for better understanding, cooperation, and mutual thought.

Teammates will always need clarity about their own responsibilities in order to be accountable for doing their jobs accurately. But that’s completely different from drawing a line down the center of the room as middle-school-age siblings sometimes do, making threats about not crossing the line, and commanding, “Don’t breathe my air.”

How to Use Your Lane to Get Somewhere

So if you’re the leader, notice when team members don’t step up to help each other in the face of a problem. Language like “It’s not my job” is deadly and soul-killing for both the speaker and the hearer. Explain that someone who knows something is going wrong — for instance, that an initiative could be accomplishing so much more — is being irresponsible if they don’t bring that observation to the table.

In these situations, ask questions about how decisions and choices are being made. Note whether productive group conversations are happening or if people are mostly talking and listening to themselves. In some cases, this could be due to willful ignorance: “I don’t know what’s going on over there and I don’t need to know. I’m just doing my job over here and keeping my head down so no one can criticize me.”

What you want to see is situational leadership and an active passing of the baton as initiatives shift from one phase to the next, as well as colleagues picking up the slack for each other when the pace flags. Mutual encouragement is crucial to keep things moving, so praise good work and provide helpful insight about upcoming events and requirements. When team members amplify each other’s strengths and successes, they are building up relationships, their capacity for work, and the likelihood of organizational success. And you can’t do that from within a single lane.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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