The Origins of Plateauing


Dr. Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


We all plateau.

When the promotions stop, when your work barely changes from day to day and holds no challenge, or when your life follows the same routine from day to day and week to week, you’ve plateaued.

Plateauing takes three forms, Structural Plateauing occurs when you reach a point in your career when you are no longer being promoted, no matter how hard you work or how good of a job you do.  Content Plateauing occurs when you’ve mastered your job and fall into a routine where you perform the same work from one day to the next.

Then there’s Life Plateauing, in which your life becomes too predictable.  You see the same friends, go to the same restaurants and do the same things from one week to the next.


Origins of Plateauing

Plateauing didn’t always exist in the workplace.  After World War II, career advancement seemed limitless, as American industry grew, the birthrate was still fairly low and those who were committed to success, walked into the most expansionary period of corporate growth in history.

Few people at the time had college degrees, until the federal GI Bill created an opportunity for many, especially men, to graduate from college.   At the same time, companies developed the need to prevent unionization by employees, and the idea developed that if you treated your employees marvelously well, they would make a commitment; productivity would increase and employee retention would be high.

So companies gave employees a lifetime commitment and employees formed the fundamental expectation that there is no limit to what you can become.  The American dream was realized to an extent that could not be duplicated.  Companies became multi-layered and bureaucratic, creating many more management positions than were needed, but also creating opportunities for promotion.  Government programs also multiplied.

However, as the baby boomer generation grew up and the economy hit a recession, many more employees were competing for fewer high-level jobs.  And since there are only a small number of jobs at the top of corporations, many baby boomers plateaued.  Now that boomers are preparing for retirement, the next generations of employees are plateauing.

Today, plateauing is happening earlier and earlier in the typical employee’s career, who noted that many young employees have been unable to find jobs even though they have college degrees, so they are still living at home with their parents at age 30.  It’s very different for the millennials, because the situation is the reverse of what it was after World War II.  In reality, this group is facing a lack of opportunity.

In spite of talk about the improving economy, employment conditions remain recession-like, adding that societal changes, government policy and personal attitudes share the blame for poor employment conditions.

Entitlement is pervasive.  There’s a feeling that, “If I can live and not work, that’s kind of cool.  I’m beating the system.”


How to Deal With Plateauing

Living a life or having a career that can be graphed as a hockey stick isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

My guess is that the largest group in the population is really comfortable with routine and the things that we call plateauing, they would call pleasant, predictable and comfortable.  When you offer them a change – and the responsibility and power that come with it – they know they should say yes, but the truth is, they’re really scared.

For those who want to continue advancing their careers and their lives, though, even little changes can help convert the plateau into a hill or even a mountain.  Doing the same thing too long kills enthusiasm.  It kills passion.  It kills everything we need from people.  To combat the tedium that content plateauing creates, it doesn’t take a big change.  You have to get off your couch, metaphorically.

To deal successfully with today’s rapidly changing workplace, what you have to develop in yourself is confidence and resilience.  You can only do it by managing risk.  You have to expect to succeed, but you will only succeed sometimes.  In addition, a question for everybody is what do you have to offer that someone would want to buy?  What can you do that will get somebody closer to their goal?

Toward that end, those who continue their education even after joining the workforce may have a competitive advantage over others that career advancement still won’t come easily for most.  For those who are smart enough to have majored in the right subject and developed skills – not just working on a computer or thinking, but conceptualizing –  and who have the technical skills that are in demand, there will be opportunity.  However, new opportunity comes from new inventions.  Good luck knowing what those will be.  It’s very difficult to know and government positions are never very accurate.

At the same time, organizations should change their approach, to create more opportunity for employees, whether or not they are being promoted.  The antidote for structural plateauing is to address content plateauing.  Organizations should be flatter.  They need to realize that every reward that comes with a promotion can be earned without a promotion.  There’s no reason why you can’t give employees greater responsibility and more freedom to make decisions.  There’s no reason why people can’t be allowed to be leaders in various ways.  What they earn and their autonomy should continue increasing as they meet new challenges.

Individual managers can help, too, by treating people as individuals, which is the opposite of what HR does.  They want everybody to be the same, because that is considered fair treatment.  But managers can treat people as individuals by developing a relationship with them.  Even learning a few details about employees and getting to know their interests can make a difference.

Get expectations to where people don’t feel crippled.  People need hope; they need goals.  Organizations have to collaborate with them and make them feel important in order for individuals to feel successful.



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