Stay in Your Lane? No Thanks!

Published: June 21, 2021

‘Stay in your lane’ is one of those phrases that weakens teams while pretending to strengthen them. You do your job and let me do mine. This is how a collection of individuals collaborates. It is not teamwork. Strong teams know the ground rules for changing lanes.

Athletics provides a useful metaphor. Is your team at a track meet where each solo performance combines to form the score? Or is it at a soccer match where everyone has a defined role, but their success is dependent on dynamic interaction? In a soccer match, defenders sometimes push the attack while forwards come back to help on defense. Everyone knows their role but they also know when and why to shift positions.

Let’s move the example to the business world. Is your team a gathering of independent financial advisors whose combined performance generates income for the firm? If so, working in silos is fine. Just outwork everyone, exceed targets and get rewarded. Stay in your lane.

Or is your team a research & development group of engineers and designers? If so, staying in your lane prevents the creative interchange that teams need to solve problems and invent the future. On this team, you want your teammates crossing over lanes.

Let’s set the ground rules. Each stage of a team’s cycle offers an opportunity to clarify when to and when not to change lanes.

Investment: Please come into my lane and invite me into yours when we need role clarification, consensus on goals and vision, or have to hammer out disagreement.

Trust: Please come into my lane and invite me into yours when we need stronger connection or if either of us is not being accountable to what we agreed on in the investment stage.

Innovation: Please come into my lane and invite me into yours when we need each other’s insight in order to solve a vexing problem or could benefit from a different point of view.

Distancing: Please come into my lane and invite me into yours when we are navigating significant change and need to widen the lens to see a broader perspective.

Individual contributors who stay in their lanes, invite no one in, and choose not to encroach in the lanes of others are capable of impressive performance, whether on the athletic field or in a competitive business environment. On their best days, however, they will never reach the level that teammates achieve when they set the ground rules for interdependent collaboration. Stay in your lane? Are you kidding me?  

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.