Has Your Work Life Plateaued?

What helps when a career doesn't seem to be going anywhere

by Russ Westcott

When you've reached a level period in your work life--or have been there for a while--you've plateaued. It's time to consider a career change or realignment.

Being plateaued isn't bad. It could even be the best thing that could happen because it stimulates you to do something about your work life.

Did you realize the average person graduating from college today may face five to seven career changes (career, not employer) in his or her working years? That means nearly everyone working will eventually plateau--perhaps more than once in the same company. However, a problem arises when a person doesn't understand what is happening. Uncertainty may add to already depressed feelings.

The promotional ladder

You could be on a work life plateau when you reach the end of the promotional ladder for which you are qualified. Reality strikes when you hear you're at the top of the pay scale, there are no higher rated jobs at your organization for a person in your skill category or the position you now hold is as far up in the organization as you can go with your background and experience. These are typically the first official kinds of notification you may receive of being plateaued.

Often people go along performing well, yet find their work becoming increasingly boring. They have learned all there is to know and are literally having the same experience over and over. The content of the job has become the plateauing factor. Furthermore, when work becomes the predominant part of a person's life and plateauing occurs, he or she may feel a sense of failure.

Because of the inherent structures in a larger organization, plateauing may be inevitable. But plateauing because a job has been mastered and become a bore need not be inevitable. The key for both organizations and employees is to recognize the potential for plateauing and its symptoms.

Organizational responsibility

Organizations need to change their internal cultures so employees who become plateaued because of the inherent structure of the organization or the job can continue to earn and receive respect and opportunities to meet new challenges. This often means providing for lateral movement or even movement to a lower rated job (to gain experience) without loss of pay.

Management must be forthright and supportive of the plateaued employee. People need to know where they stand and must continue to feel valued by their organizations. Perhaps most important, the plateaued individual needs to face the situation squarely, discard unrealistic ambitions and take charge of his or her career.

To individuals unfamiliar with the help available, there are myriad books, tapes, workshops, courses, gurus and well-meaning, advice giving friends available. The newcomer to personal career transition planning can become frustrated and confused, even misguided, by it all.

Going it alone

A first timer can perhaps go it alone, sort it all out in a meaningful way and eventually achieve a successful career transition. However, for some it may be confusing, inefficient and possibly ineffective to fly without instruction and coaching. In such cases, professionally guided and coached work life planning can lead to a career or job change through a proven series of steps:

  • Assessing career status.
  • Undergoing personal testing (optional).
  • Planning an effective career.
  • Developing a career strategy.
  • Setting a job or position objective.
  • Planning the transition campaign.
  • Creating the career specific resume.
  • Identifying prospects through research.
  • Creating action oriented letters.
  • Preparing and making telephone contacts.
  • Preparing to interview and undergoing interview coaching.
  • Evaluating offers and negotiating the best terms of employment.
  • Receiving counseling on making the transition to the new job or position.
  • Closing the campaign.

Throughout a typical program, work life planning is under the guidance of an experienced coach. This is applicable not only to plateaued people but also to those who may have been out of or never in the pay-for-work environment or those who have recently lost or are about to lose their jobs.

Help is available, ranging from do-it-yourself guidance from books and tapes to Internet forums to professional career coaches. Watch this column for monthly hints and proven practices.

RUSSELL T. WESTCOTT is president of the Offerjost-Westcott Group (OWG) in Old Saybrook, CT, which specializes in providing work life planning, guidance and coaching. He co-edited The Certified Quality Manager Handbook, second edition, which was produced by the Quality Management Division and published by ASQ Quality Press. Westcott is an ASQ Fellow, certified quality auditor and certified quality manager.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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