Escaping the Plateauing Trap

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Like death and disaster, we often deny or ignore it until it happens. Which, almost inevitably it does. We become “plateaued”, stalled, blocked, dead-ended, and stuck. “Plateauing” is actually a neutral concept or state that says we have reached a stable essentially state.

Since all of our commitments mature and stabilize, plateauing is a normal experience. It is nothing more than a phase in everyone’s life. But, when a major aspect of life has stabilized, as it ultimately does, we may feel significantly dissatisfied.

Although plateauing occurs naturally in virtually every aspect of living, from marriage to athletics, we’re usually most aware of it in terms of careers and then it’s almost always viewed as an assault to our sense of self, fairness and pride in our accomplishments. In my experience, the source of such drastically negative feelings has two primary sources. The first is the fact that performance evaluations almost always skew to the positive, specifically, almost everyone is evaluated in the second highest category which creates unachievable expectations in too many people. The second factor is organizations tier all the most significant rewards to promotion and promotions usually end decades before retirement which makes the end of promotion an enormous psychological.

From research and experience, I have learned, however, that when an individual or organization acknowledges the syndrome of normal plateauing, awareness can make being plateaued the platform upon which to build the next phase of life through growth and experience. But that’s getting ahead of the story just a bit.

Plateauing is a serious issue. In this culture of fundamental optimism, plateauing drains, it drags, it doesn’t refer to upbeat beginnings but to endings – the end of challenge, the end of excitement in our lives, and for individuals, the end of raises, rewards and recognition. Promotion is the problem when we’re dealing with “structural” plateauing the declining of positions as you look up the hierarchy. “Content” plateauing on the job means you’ve mastered your work to such a degree that work is not challenging not interesting.

Basically, promotion is a matter of numbers. The more organizations grow, the more promotion opportunities there are. The smaller the pool of qualified people, the greater the opportunities for those who are competitive. From 1950 to 1975, we experienced the greatest business expansion ever. And the number of educated people, the number of qualified candidates for upper mobility, was small.   As a result, those who were able were promoted. In organizations, promotion became the singularly important reward and it was available to many people for a good part of their career. Our current expectations of what our careers will be like if we work and excel come from that era.

But now we have the opposite conditions: We have far and away the largest number of educated people we have ever had and the number of professional and management positions is declining as a result, this is a time of early glass ceilings for both men and women.

Plateauing has always been a harsh issue that individuals had to deal with by themselves. An enormous number of educated and ambitious baby boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials are pressing for promotion just as organizations are contracting. The result is increased competition for promotion, earlier career plateauing, and major disappointment for majority. If the issue is not addressed, the inevitable outcome of the widespread frustration, disappointment and anger will assuredly be decreased job involvement, creativity and productivity, which no organization can afford.

Plateaued organizations and individuals are characteristically down; they’re defensive and depressed. Those negative states of low energy have to be replaced with the high energy of enthusiasm. Being plateaued has to be transformed from a problem to an opportunity. The first step is to strip plateauing of any association with failure. That’s achieved by giving people the information about how even in good times the number of positions decreases sharply as one rises in the hierarchy. Even the top executives become structurally plateaued because there’s no place higher for them to go. People don’t even have the opportunity to rise to their level of incompetence because competition keeps emotion stymied.

Today’s plateauing problem is the opposite of the Peter Principle. People are not rising to their level of incompetence. Instead, the glut of candidates for promotion at a time when positions are decreasing results in many people not reaching levels of responsibility for which they are perfectly able to manage. Today’s plateauing has no relationship with failure. It is, instead, strictly a matter of numbers.

To remotivate valuable employees, organizations have to recognize the destructive nature of the current and new system which depends on promotion, all of the rewards and challenges which are the result today of being promoted can and should be available to those whose value keeps increasing through promotions are not creating new challenges and opportunities for those who are structurally plateaued. In other words ending content plateauing needs to be viewed as a close second to promotion in terms of recognizing high potential and sustained excellence.







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