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The conventional language of career success moves in only one direction: up. You scale the career ladder or climb the greasy pole. If you do well, you have a rapid ascent. And if you really succeed, you reach the top. No one ever rings home to share the news that they have reached a plateau. But there is another type of career trajectory. Sideways moves, to jobs that don’t involve a promotion or even necessarily a pay rise, can be a boon to employees and organisations alike.

A study carried out by Donald Sull of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his co-authors in 2021 found that the availability of lateral career opportunities has a marked impact on employee retention. Their research found that chances to move sideways were two and a half times more important than pay as a predictor of workers’ willingness to stay at a firm. Another paper, by Xin Jin of the University of South Florida and Michael Waldman of Cornell University, concluded that lateral moves did not just benefit organisations: employees who experienced them were more likely to be promoted and to enjoy higher wage growth later in their careers than employees who did not. You can move up by first moving sideways.

Lateral moves and good management seem to go hand in hand. A recent paper by Virginia Minni of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a British think-tank, looked at job moves within a big multinational over a period of ten years. She found that the arrival of a high-flying boss (who had got the job early in their career) was associated with a jump in intra-company transfers, both horizontal and vertical, among employees. Better bosses seem to be good at sorting people into roles that suit them. This process again results in higher pay over time for employees who move sideways; it is also associated with higher profits.

The crab-like career has other things going for it beyond better matches between people and jobs. One is that it is a good way to learn new things. As hiring processes increasingly emphasise skills, recruiters are likely to put comparatively less emphasis on CVs and comparatively more weight on what you know. Messrs Jin and Waldman reason that the higher echelons of companies tend to be populated by people whose capabilities are broad, not deep; that may explain why lateral moves are good for promotion prospects. Along with skills come contacts: transferring between teams usually means building a bigger internal network.

Lateral moves can also be a wonderful cure for boredom. There is nothing to fear in a bit of tedium, but people will do almost anything to avoid it in large doses. In an experiment by Chantal Nederkoorn of Maastricht University and her co-authors, participants were asked to watch dull, sad and neutral film clips and given the ability to self-administer electric shocks as they did so. Those watching monotonous films shocked themselves more often and at greater intensity. (Films by Wes Anderson were presumably too dangerous to be shown for this reason.)

This need for stimulation pervades the workplace. Surveys consistently show that great chunks of the workforce find their jobs tedious. Stephan Meier of Columbia Business School, who is writing a book on employee-centric organisations, reckons that one big source of motivation for workers is having “just right tasks” that are within their capabilities but stretch them in new ways. Promotions offer fresh challenges but you can also easily get stuck waiting for a vacancy to open up above you. Looking to the side affords more options.

Opening the door to more lateral moves is partly a practical matter. Some bigger employers have “internal talent marketplaces” in which employees can find and apply for jobs elsewhere in the company; smaller firms have fewer such opportunities to offer. But participating in a side-project is another way for workers to shake things up and learn new skills. In a poll of American workers for Colorado State University Global, almost half said that they would feel more motivated if they were part of a new process or project.

Embracing sideways movement also requires the right attitude. Lots of managers like to hoard talent, at the expense of workers and firms. And moving horizontally still has less cachet than moving upwards. It would help if career success had a different vocabulary: across or out, say, or the meteoric scuttle.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Every location has got worse for getting actual work done (Mar 13th)
How can firms pass on tacit knowledge? (Mar 7th)
Why you should lose your temper at work (Feb 29th)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

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