Plateauing: What it is and what Corporations are doing about it.


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Plateauing has always been a harsh issue that individuals had to deal with by themselves. But now it is also a problem that organizations have to recognize and manage. An enormous number of educated and ambitious baby boomers are pressing for promotion just as organizations are reducing in size. The result is increased competition for promotion, early career plateauing, and significant disappointment for many. If the issue is not addressed, the inevitable outcome of the widespread frustration, disappointment, and anger, is decreased job involvement and productivity. No organization can afford that.

Career plateauing, especially because it is occurring stressfully early, is a problem that has to be managed. 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 easily achieved by giving people the information about where career plateauing comes from and why it is happening so early.

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 shrinking, results in many people not having an opportunity to reach levels of responsibility which they are perfectly able to manage. Today’s plateauing has no relationship with failure. It is, instead, strictly a matter of those numbers.

As promotions are increasingly scarce, people need to be motivated by something else. It is never a good idea to promise what cannot be delivered. We know that in addition to promotion, people want the opportunity to continuously experience the absorption and satisfaction of meeting and mastering challenge. Individuals must increasingly emphasize the value and excitement of challenge and the organization’s culture must support that transition. Organizations must motivate with something they can deliver; individuals must be motivated by something they can gain. Challenge is an experience that never has to end. Meeting challenges must become even more valued and rewarded. Currently, “success” in an organization means having more people you are responsible for; having more people report to you. It means having more power over more people. But today, fewer people will have the opportunity to manage people. What they can have, though, is more responsibility for and power in terms of making decisions.

That will have to be perceived as a new and different kind of “Success.” In other words, as the number of positions for managers decreases, then fewer people will be in the business of managing others and many will be in the business of the business. This means that increasing numbers of people will gauge their “success” in terms of how much they actually contributed to whatever that organization does. More and more people will be in the action as DOERS rather than managers. And Doing is often more genuinely satisfying and even exciting than is managing others who are doing the real work and achieving the real accomplishments. The current morale problem of professionals, managers and executives is the result of the long-term emphasis on rising into management, with organizations rewarding that far more than outstanding professionalism.

That’s an arbitrary set of values that can be reversed. For example, in the great universities, the admired people are the outstanding researchers and teachers–the people really doing the business of the institution–and administrators are merely tolerated. Institutions are plateaued when there’s no sense of momentum, and individuals feel plateaued when they feel stuck. Thus, plateaued organizations and individuals have no clear sense of a future because there’s no feeling of movement toward anything. The task for the organization, its’ managers, and for individual employees, is to face the issue of disappointment and then go beyond that, creating a future and new goals that emphasize the excitement of challenge. Facing and mastering a new task is engrossing. Full-out striving toward a goal is moving toward a future. That experience is optimistic; it is high-energy. That outcome is achievable. The first task is to get out of the plateauing trap by facing the issue. The second is to create ~ new goals. Individuals and organizations need a sense of purpose; they need a sense of excitement, of venturing forward, of striving, and then of winning. We can achieve that.

What Corporations Are Doing

Plateauing is a controversial subject in American business because facing it requires organizations to admit that the big rewards of promotion and money are available for a limited time only. Addressing the issue means that organizations have to say that unless people are extraordinary, no matter how hard they work, their promotion opportunities are finite. Because organizations are afraid that people will lose their motivation to work well if the truth is clear, until now, most avoided the subject.

In general, among the Fortune 100 companies, corporate awareness of the need to do something about plateauing is much greater than any significant actions taken. Conceptual awareness of the problem may come through: major organizational changes, such as downsizing, which tend to aggravate the problems created by plateauing; morale problems which may be related to plateauing; or simply, the recognition that fewer promotional opportunities exist within the organization.

Those corporations that have begun to address the problems created by plateauing have done so through an educational process–directed at all levels of the organization, but especially to management–that seeks to help people understand the phenomenon of plateauing, its origins and its virtual inevitability, and to explore possible solutions. For the most part companies don’t look at the entire issue with its range of complexities, but instead focus on a specific aspect in order to get a handle on the problem. Corporations are looking at symptoms of the problem rather than looking at the corporate system that creates plateauing problems. They need to turn these problems into opportunities–and that will take a much more comprehensive approach which would, no doubt, require an extraordinary amount of change in the culture, in procedures, and in structure.

Though the senior executives in the dozen major corporations are acutely aware of early plateauing, many are just coming to grips with the problem or are still trying to determine how severe a problem it represents. In most cases, the corporate responses to the problem are fragmented and in the very beginning stages.

No organization can provide all the sources for fulfillment and self esteem for anyone forever.  People who are not workaholics have achieved a balance in their work and personal lives and are less likely to become plateaued at work and life.  From the organization’s point of view, the question is whether it should encourage people to enlarge their commitments to other spheres of life besides work so the organization is protected from demands it can never meet.


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