Feeling stuck? Funny how we think of plateaus in a negative light. Plateaus can actually be perfect for resting and absorbing the surroundings – taking it all in, 360 degrees around. But plateaus can grow stale quickly. What comes next? Is there another, higher level you can reach? Will you have to backtrack or go downhill for a while before scaling that next peak? Career plateaus allow us to regroup and focus our thoughts, but it can be awfully tempting to enjoy that plateau for too long, and that can cause opportunities to be missed.

Sometimes we know we’ve hit a career plateau and we don’t like it because we feel like there’s no possibility for further upward achievement. When this happens, that plateau, even if it has some pretty nice vistas, will begin to feel like a trap. Will changes mean you lose status you’ve worked hard for? Will you let colleagues or family members down if you pursue change? Will you let yourself down if you keep things the way they are? Here are some thoughts on dealing with career plateaus.


Are You Reaching YOUR Potential?

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is whether you are reaching your potential. Most people in your position may pursue a particular career direction, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. It’s essential that before determining how to deal with a career plateau that you take a personal look at what success means to you. It may point you in a different direction than others in your field, but that’s OK. Success is personal, and so is your path for getting there.

Managing your career is your responsibility, and you probably have more control over your career direction than you think. Take a fresh look at your career, including your core personality, your ability to perform essential tasks, and your demonstration of character and leadership. Begin with an honest look at your current professional situation.

Accurately Assessing Your Current Situation

You know you have reached a plateau, but what are the characteristics of that plateau? What are your three greatest strengths and your three greatest weaknesses? Identifying these can be challenging, and it’s fine to ask others for help as long as you trust them to be honest. Meaningful reflection is definitely involved along with gathering feedback.

Accurate assessment of your current situation must account for the here and now, because careers and industries evolve. A skill that was critical ten years ago may have been supplanted by something else. A new regulation may require that things be done differently than they were when you started out. Assessing your career situation requires humility, but it also requires you to recognize what you do well. Knowing what you do well can help impart the confidence you need to confront your shortcomings and blind spots and move past them so you can move beyond the career plateau you’re on.

Do You Know the Critical Tasks You Need to Master?

What critical tasks are essential to making further progress in your career? For some people that may be obtaining an advanced degree or specialist certification. For others, developing more general career skills (like the ability to communicate with an audience) will be essential. What do the most successful people in your industry do? Once you identify the three or four most important skills and activities associated with success in your profession, you have a starting point.

While this may seem intuitively obvious, the connection between key skills and success is easy to lose sight of in the day-to-day grind of the job. Suppose the people in your profession who have the level of success to which you aspire all have at least half a dozen published technical papers to their credit. Maybe you have three, so now you have something specific to aim for that will help you lift yourself from your current plateau.

Strategies for Achieving Peak Behavior

Have you ever considered that you have hit a plateau because you don’t fail fast enough? It’s worth thinking about. Generally, the faster you fail, the faster you learn. You can, according to psychology experts, learn to recognize failure more quickly, based on clear and objective markers, so you can make corrections and move forward. Failing faster doesn’t necessarily mean failing bigger, but it does mean developing the ability to recognize what’s failing now and what is likely to fail soon enough. That’s how chess masters are made, by being able to anticipate several moves into the future.

Another strategy is diversification. It makes sense for financial investing, and it makes sense in life in general. It’s important to note that you don’t have to take up a new interest that’s directly related to your career. If you have an interest in learning improv comedy or how to do stage makeup, go for it. Diverse activities are often the very thing to shake us out of complacency.

A final strategy is recognizing when you simply need a break. Any exceptional artist or athlete can tell you that the times of rest or inactivity are incredibly important – often equally as important as the times when you expend the most effort. Sometimes getting off a plateau involves a period of nothing more than waiting. It’s frustrating, but true.

Learning to Play the Long Game

Recognizing plateaus requires that we see into the metaphoric distance, and that we plan our career with the long game in mind. Hitting a plateau can be disappointing whether we’re hiking in the wilderness, losing weight, or pursuing our career. When dealing with career plateaus, don’t be fueled by impatience or fear of failure. Rather, ask yourself what you can learn from your situation, or how you can add value to your team.

Hitting a career plateau may feel permanent, but you have significant control over what happens going forward. It’s up to you to plan your career, because even the most invested supervisor has less invested in your future than you do. If you’re tired of simply going through the motions and facing a future that always looks the same, then I cordially invite you to get in touch with me. As a leadership coach, I want to help you have the kind of success that’s not just “on paper,” but evident in your priorities, your spirit, and your effect in the world.