How to Navigate a Career Plateau

by | Last updated Sep 6, 2021 | Executive Women

Navigating a career plateau can be tricky. You may want to maintain your employment but feel hopeless due to the lack of opportunities at your place of business. Or, you may feel that your skills have been inaccurately assessed and that you have more to give. You may have even decided to stand down from advancement due to circumstances outside of work. 


This article will help you navigate a career plateau. It will: 


  • Define a career plateau
  • Detail common reasons for a career plateau
  • Discuss how a career plateau affects employees
  • Illustrate how HR could help employees navigate a career plateau
  • Provide tips on how to get over a career plateau

What is a career plateau?

A career plateau is a point in your career where progressing further is difficult or obstacle ridden. You find yourself doing the same tasks over and over again with little potential for growth, learning, or an opportunity to create value for the organization (or for your career).  


Common reasons for a career plateau

Executive woman

1. Organizational assessment


An individual may hit a plateau due to an organization’s negative assessment of their abilities. In actuality, the employee may have become proficient with her job’s content and now feels stifled by the job’s repetitiveness. Her boredom leads to a lack of motivation and/or negativity, leading to average or below average organizational assessment. 


If an organization has incorrectly pigeonholed an employee;s capabilities or willingness, the employee needs to summon the courage to advocate for their advancement by communicating their worth and intentions to their employer.

2. Organizational constraint

The individual is unable to rise further in the organization’s hierarchical pyramid (i.e., organizational constraint) due to the very nature of the organizational structure – there are fewer roles at the top. 


Further, when an organization downsizes or merges, middle manager-level roles are often consolidated and upper management roles may be eliminated. There are also situations in smaller companies where the management tenure is long and turnover is rare.


If an employee has become accustomed to earning a promotion every few years but seems to no longer be met with opportunities for vertical advancement, they have plateaued due to the organizational structure. 


Employees who find themselves in this scenario may choose to leave the company in order to pursue advancement elsewhere, or stay at the company but decrease productivity and withdraw from organizational involvement.

I’ve grown substantially in my career and have reached new heights that I never dreamed of. Anne taught me the value of having a good work ethic and she is essentially is the reason I am where I am today in my career. She always encouraged me to set goals and meet them, push myself beyond my comfort zone and reach for the stars.

Kristin Miller Nash, RCE

Political Fundraising Director, NC Association of Realtors

3. Inaccurate self-assessment

An employee’s mindset might be prohibiting them from thinking creatively about how to re-construct one’s role or advance laterally or diagonally. There may be unconventional advancement options available that the employee has not considered due to limiting beliefs about one’s abilities. 


Or, alternatively, you may believe your abilities are stronger than they are; you’re being held back by a lack of skill or experience that others recognize but that you are blind to.

4. Personal choice

There are times when an individual chooses not to advance further. They may be of the opinion that the added stress, income, travel, or other responsibility that is associated with the position is not worth it.

How does a career plateau affect employees? 

 1. Negative outcomes

An employee who has reached her plateau tends to invest less time in her tasks and is disengaged in company events or initiatives that build a corporate culture and/or workplace relationships. Instead, this employee will dedicate her energy to pursuing personal interests or relationships. These are certainly good for the employee but represents mismanaged or wasted talents and energy by the employer.

2. Positive outcomes

A career plateau might be an opportunity for you to “cruise” for a short time. Focus on developing skills outside of those in use at your full-time job. These could be hobbies that bring you pleasure like painting or gardening, or workforce-related skills such as learning to code or dabbling in graphic design. 


When an employee reaches a career plateau, they may decide to look into what is a slash career & why they might need one

How should HR function in response an employee’s career plateau?

HR has an important role to play in helping an employee re-engage at work by exploring new opportunities for mobility at the company. If the HR department is proactive in working with the employee and manager, the issues might be surfaced and resolved fairly quickly to the benefit of both the employee and employer.

If there are no opportunities for upward mobility, what lateral tasks or projects could be offered to the employee as rewards for making a positive impact beyond their day-to-day scope of work?

How to get over a career plateau


  • Take an honest look at why your career has plateaued

    Is the issue one of limited structural opportunities within the organization? A sub-par assessment of your abilities? Personal choice or internal limitations? 

  • If the reason is one of organizational structure… 

    … your choice may be to pursue opportunities at similar companies in the same or similar industries or functional areas that have more opportunity for upward mobility. Or, you may wish to stay in your current position while broadening your skills and developing new contacts in a new industry on your personal time in preparation to change careers or job functions entirely. This post, What is a Slash Career & Why Do You Need One, examines this approach in more detail. 

  • If the reason is one of organizational assessment…

    … it’s gut check time: is the assessment fair? Be honest. Are there political forces at play within your organization, or is it possible that your skill development is not on track for advancement? You may need to advocate for yourself with management, but first, discuss this approach with trusted colleagues and/or HR.

  • If the reason is personal choice… 

  • … take the long view: how long do you plan to stay in your current position? Under what circumstances might you consider advancing in the future?


If you are considering leaving your organization, look into your policy manual to check for any non-compete clauses. Will you need to look outside your industry or geographical area accordingly?

A career plateau is a season of your career. Do not let your career plateau define you or your worth to the marketplace. Take stock of where you are and keep moving forward – at a pace that works for YOU.

Anne played an integral role during my transition into a leadership position. She helped me identify my strengths, areas of growth and most importantly she held me accountable. Anne’s years of experience combined with her compassionate disposition were exactly what I needed.

Kristen T.

Independent School Administrator


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