Tech & Work

'Lateral moves' to avoid conflict should be a last resort

Considering a lateral move within your organization? Whether it's to escape an annoying manager or merely to get into a job with different responsibilities, there's a right way and a wrong way to handle it.


By Ken Hardin

A TechRepublic member who asked to remain anonymous writes to ask:

Question: How do you handle making a lateral move from under your current manager within a small company without causing friction?

Answer: The honest answer to your question is that you're probably going to have to cope with some degree of friction, particularly since the tone of your question leads me to believe that your situation is already a bit tense. Of course, the extent of the heat your move creates depends on a lot of mitigating factors; "lateral move" is a pretty broad term with a lot of connotations, very few of them positive.

First off, let me say that "lateral" moves aren't inherently negative, if they’re driven by a genuine desire to move into a different job function. The idea of changing jobs for the same (or even less) money was largely disparaged during the dot-com, job-hopping craze, but as the industry sobers up, a lot of employees and managers are rediscovering the joys of being happy and productive in the workplace.

So, if you’re considering a "lateral move" into a new specialty—perhaps from a team that supports application and Web servers into the group responsible for e-mail administration—you may be surprised at how receptive your current and future managers will be to the change.

My best advice to you under these circumstances is to discuss your interest in a new position with your current boss either before you apply or immediately thereafter. Whatever you do, don't let your current manager find out from somebody else that you're looking to move. That little jolt is bound to create a degree of friction in even the healthiest manager/team member relationship.

But be careful to set the right tone for this conversation. After all, you don't need your boss's permission to apply for a new job, so don't go into this exchange with an overly deferential or apologetic attitude. Ask your current boss a lot of questions about his impressions of your skills and aptitudes, and how he thinks you might fit into the new role you may want to pursue. Keep the conversation focused on job roles, responsibilities, and requirements; the clear message that you're carefully considering your move based on professional criteria is key to diffusing any misplaced feelings of betrayal or resentment your manager might feel.

Now, onto a major "don't" in these kinds of situations—don't ask your current manager a lot of questions about the manager of the team that you might want to join. I'm on the cusp of giving away club secrets here, but the thing that drives most managers crazy about "lateral moves" isn’t a sense of abandonment by employees; it’s that other managers are making themselves look good at the expense of our teams and reputations. (It’s a little petty, I know, but we have egos, too.) The temptation to get the dirt on a potential new boss is often too strong to resist, but do it amongst you peer set, and keep it as discreet as possible. If you ask your current boss touchy questions—or even worse, make snide comments—about another manager, he's going to assume you're spreading the same message about him, and before you know it, you're labeled as a problem employee.

This leads me to the guts of why "lateral moves" have largely earned their ignominy as being bad for morale, team productivity, and staff development. If you're considering a new role simply to get away from a problematic relationship with your current boss (which, unfortunately, is often the case), my strongest advice to you is to exhaust every possible avenue before taking that step. Certainly, if this is your current situation, you can forget about not creating friction, particularly at a small company—that cat's going to get out of the bag, no matter what you do, and you will feel some negative fallout from your decision.

Believe me, I know there are some bad managers out there, but you'll find that most bad managers are the ultimate result of a bad management culture that embraces shortcuts like shuffling "problem" employees from team to team. (Here's another club secret—no matter the general consensus of a given manager's shortcoming among your peers, a contentious lateral move always reflects poorly on a team member in management's eyes. That's just how it is.) Very few managers—or people, for that matter—are genuinely out to do their colleagues harm, so your first and best recourse is always to go to your manager with your concerns and try to work them out.

If you really are butting heads with a jerk, find the proper channels to go to the jerk's boss, Human Resources, or some other court of appeals in your company. Hopefully, this will help you and your manager resolve your issues. If the situation really is irreparable, at least you will have conducted yourself professionally throughout the dispute and logged your issues with the company in the manner that will protect your good reputation if you later decide to make a lateral move to another team.

Remember that, no matter who you work for, there will be some conflicts. Years of painful experience as both an employee and manager have taught me to be leery of lateral moves made simply to dodge a personal conflict. And I promise you that no manager worth her salt likes to see employees leave or come to her team as a result of unresolved frictions in another part of the company.

A last piece of tactical advice: If you do decide to pursue a job on another team, and in the spirit of full disclosure you need to tell your prospective manager about the issues that have prompted your desire to move, watch the manager's reaction carefully. If the manager gives you a "you poor dear" expression and doesn't ask you any tough questions about the steps you took to work through the problem, run away. That kind of unchallenging validation of complaints may initially seem comforting to some employees, but it doesn't help you learn and grow, even from a tough situation that was ultimately out of your control. These are the kinds of managers that make other managers nuts, and a decision to move laterally onto such a team will invariably reflect poorly on you.

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