Why moving sideways in our careers may be more useful than just going up

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Before I started my career as a journalist, I thought the only way to succeed was by being promoted up the ladder.

For my profession, that meant becoming an editor of some sort: whether that’s a chief of staff, a news director or section editor, I knew that success depended on the level of leadership I would take on. 

It also meant being taken away from what I was good at and passionate about: writing. 

When you start out in the workplace, all you have to fall back on is what your university lecturers say (if you went to university), and the portrayal of your given profession by popular culture. While I always admired people titled “senior writers” or “authors”, I never thought about where they fit in the hierarchy of reporting culture, or interrogated why their positions – and not the editors – held me in such a thrall. 

Like so many, I was caught in the trap of linear career progression, where moving in any direction other than up was – is – considered failure. The conventional language of professional career success moves in only one direction: up. We talk about careers as climbing the ladder, as though the only way to advance is to be promoted to (usually) management or leadership roles.

This model – which depends on moving people exceptional at their craft or trade – doesn’t always work or even make sense. 

“To be a manager, you have to draw on different skills, have to be someone different at work,” points out Anya Johnson, professor in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School. Excellent writers, for example, do not necessarily make good editors. Same goes for teachers: delivering a lesson in an engaging and passionate manner to children or teenagers does not mean being good at managing a team of teachers.  

“Not everyone wants to do that [move into management], and the idea that’s the only career path is challenging for many people,” Johnson adds. 

This is where another career trajectory comes up – the horizontal, or sideways, move. Not all workers want to climb the ladder and take on more responsibilities or managerial roles. Some may just want to try something new – say, reporting on health instead of politics — without necessarily changing their day-to-day tasks.

This type of job hopping may seem counterintuitive: why change something if you’re not going to have something senior to show for it on a CV? Well, studies  show that workplaces which enable sideways moves are more likely to retain their employees – 12 times more predictive of employee retention, in fact, than linear promotions. 

This also applies to big international companies, where employees given the opportunity to work in offices in different countries are more likely to stick around.  

“The reason sideways moves work is because they enable people to use their skills in a different way without completely changing the job,” says Johnson. 

This is supported by research, which shows that a senior position and having more money are not necessarily the biggest drawcards for employees. Instead, workers who say they like their jobs cite high levels of autonomy (not only in the job but also in decisions about work times and number of working hours), good development opportunities  and support from co-workers. 

Sideways moves are also particularly useful for women, who often miss out on promotions due to outdated notions such as not being seen as a ‘leader’; receiving lower potential ratings than men (despite studies suggesting they actually performed better); and being given more  ‘women tasks’ such as note taking, organising social events or initiatives such as diversity and inclusion work, which nearly half of women leaders say are seen as soft and not recognised as contributing to their official job. 

Your gender and the gender of who you report to also matter, with research out of Harvard showing that men who report to other men are promoted the fastest. 

And then there is the time suck. 

“As you enter leadership or management roles, they become boundaryless,” says Johnson. “The challenge for women in particular is that they have boundaries outside of work such as care commitments and greater household responsibilities, so they can be self-limiting in not going for those roles because of that.” (There are, of course, many women who do opt for leadership and excel, but it does take more manoeuvring than for their male counterparts)m 

Because of this caring and domestic work that still overwhelmingly falls to women (ABS data shows that women spend on average 4.5 hours a day doing unpaid work, while men spend just over 3 hours, and as many as 42 per cent of men spend time on housework at all compared to 70 per cent women), it often suits women to map out their work success in a different way, Johnson adds.

“Many women think about their career in terms of a life course. There are clear points in their careers when they will have to contain the work they do and then expand it.” Sideways moves are a great way to keep in touch with the world of work and prepare the groundwork for when women are able to take on more senior roles, she says. 

“Being out of work is not forever, and you need to find ways to build out your skills while still containing what you do, for which moving sideways is perfect.”

Of course, for many of us – women and men – the system itself doesn’t quite suit what we are passionate about or simply enjoy doing, and we may decide to never ‘move up’ in the more traditional linear sense. 

I have slowly come to the realisation that my career is one big sideways step, flitting from feature story to essay to project without necessarily moving to a leadership role – and I couldn’t be happier.  


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