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Career Plateaus Explained: How to Help Employees Who Feel Stuck

Career plateaus can affect one or more of your employees, but they’re bigger than just the individual. Hitting a career plateau can impact the person’s job performance and overall morale and productivity. By helping your employees move past their plateaus, you can minimize the impact on your business and help them succeed.

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What are career plateaus?

A career plateau is a point where an employee feels stuck with no way to progress or move up in the company. They feel they’ve grown as much as they can in their careers with the company or their skills. Career plateaus often come with boredom, frustration or dissatisfaction with the job. People in all fields, positions and levels can eventually get to this place.

Reasons employees hit career plateaus

Employees can hit career plateaus for many reasons, both internal and external. Some common reasons include:

  • The position involves repetitive tasks
  • Lack of challenging duties or autonomy in the workload
  • No opportunities for advancement or lateral career moves
  • Employee burnout
  • Lack of learning opportunities or motivation to learn
  • Lack of confidence in ability to move to a higher role
  • Lack of the necessary skills for a new position
  • Outgrowing a current position
  • Personal issues that interfere with job performance or advancement

3 types of career plateaus

You can typically categorize the causes of career plateaus into three groups. Understanding the type of plateau can help you better address the situation. The three types of career plateaus include:

  • Structural: This type happens when the cause is organizational. It can happen if the company doesn’t have any higher levels for the employee, which is often common in smaller companies with fewer management positions. Sometimes, it’s a matter of economic conditions preventing the company from promoting or management feeling like the employee isn’t suited for higher positions. These are external causes that the employee can’t really control.
  • Content: The employee is the main cause of the stall of this type. They might lack the skills or experience to move any higher. Learning new skills could help the employee overcome this type of plateau, but they don’t always choose to take those steps.
  • Personal: Sometimes, an employee’s personal life causes them to plateau at work. They might have health problems that they need to get under control. Some employees might be dealing with a difficult family situation that distracts them from work or demands more of their attention. These issues are difficult for an employer to help with since they’re centered on personal problems that might take time to resolve.

Why employers should care when an employee hits a career plateau

Career plateaus might seem like personal problems that your employees need to resolve themselves, but they can greatly impact your business. Someone who feels like they have nowhere to go with your company might start looking elsewhere for better opportunities. If they stay, their work performance could change. Reasons to address career plateaus include:

  • Increased employee retention: If you help your employees work past feeling stuck, you could help improve employee retention. Your team is more likely to stay if they know they have opportunities to advance.
  • Improve job satisfaction: Helping your employees move forward in their careers with your company can increase their satisfaction. They might feel more fulfilled and find more purpose in their work.
  • Boost overall work environment: Taking steps to prevent or get through career plateaus can create a more positive environment. It shows that you care about your employees and want them to succeed. Improving the work environment can help with retention and help attract new employees.
  • Bring in new skills: By encouraging your employees to expand their skills and try new things, you’re adding those skills to your company’s roster. It can make you more competitive and help you stay on the cutting edge of the industry.
  • Improve your talent pipeline: Employees who continually learn new things and gain new skills are better positioned to move into different positions within your company. Internal hiring can make the transition faster, and you get an employee in an advanced position who already knows how the company works.
  • Maintain productivity and performance standards: Hitting a plateau can affect employee productivity, which can affect your entire business. The employee might also perform below their normal standards. Supporting your employees and giving them more opportunities can keep productivity and performance higher.

What employers can do about career plateaus

If you leave it up to your employees to move past their plateaus, you might lose them to other companies or see continued poor performance. Taking general steps to encourage employees to advance can help avoid or minimize career plateaus. The following options may help.

1. Offer training options

Creating a training and development program can keep your employees learning new skills, which can give them opportunities to grow. Learning new skills can also engage your employees and prepare them to take on new responsibilities, even if they don’t move into new roles. Some training options include:

  • Internal training led by HR, managers or in-house experts
  • Online training programs
  • On-the-job training or shadowing with people in other roles
  • Seminars and industry conferences
  • Tuition reimbursement for related college programs

2. Create a career map

Sitting down with each employee to create a career map can help them realize what types of opportunities they can have within your organization. Some employees might not be aware of the career paths they could take. You can discuss with each employee what they might like to do, explore related options within the company and establish a path for getting there. Start with employees you think might be at a career plateau and move on to all other employees to help them avoid feeling stuck.

3. Set goals with your employees

Goal setting with employees can also give them something to work toward, which can help them avoid or move past a plateau. Goals might involve learning new skills or earning certifications that can help in their current positions, or they could be stepping stones to help them advance to a higher position. You might suggest goals that you think would be a good fit for the employee and your organization, but they’ll be more likely to work toward those goals if they’re on board and want to achieve them. Check in regularly on progress toward the goals and to see if they need to be adjusted.

4. Offer new responsibilities and opportunities

Even if you don’t have an advancement option right now, positions could open later due to company growth or other employees leaving. However, you might be able to make the employee’s current job more meaningful by giving them more responsibilities or work opportunities. Maybe you can offer more autonomy in a certain job duty, or you might offer the employee a chance to train others. These opportunities help your employees learn new skills and find more fulfillment in what they do.

5. Be supportive of personal issues

If the cause of the plateau is personal, you can’t fix the situation. But you can be as supportive as possible to help your employee deal with the issue. You might encourage them to take time off or allow flexible working arrangements while they navigate the situation. Some employees might need to take a leave of absence. Offering robust benefits and being flexible with your employees can give them the support they need to get back on track personally and professionally.

FAQs about career plateaus

Are career plateaus inevitable for most employees?

Career plateaus are common, but they’re not inevitable. Employees who are proactive with their career advancement opportunities can avoid the feeling of getting stuck. If they tune into how they’re feeling, they might notice those stuck feelings early and can take steps to move past them and get through the plateau faster.

What are the signs of a career plateau?

The signs of a career plateau aren’t always easy to see from the outside. They often start as internal feelings of being stuck, frustrated, bored and losing passion for the job. You might notice a change in the person’s attitude about work. They might start caring less, lack motivation or slack on their performance.

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