Woman professional looking unhappy sitting at her desk in an office resting her head on her hand looking at her phone behind a laptop wondering if her career plateaued.

Navigating the professional world means experiencing periods of rapid growth and times when progress seemingly grinds to a halt. Encountering a career plateau can be frustrating, leaving you feeling stuck, uninspired, and questioning your life choices. But don’t worry, you’re not alone in this. Many professionals and job seekers face the same issue. 

Throughout this article, we explore career plateaus – including recognizing when you’re experiencing one and, most importantly, how to overcome it. Whether you’re unhappy at work, unable to advance professionally, or feeling disconnected from your company’s goals, it’s important to know that reviving your career outlook is possible. 

What is a career plateau?

A career plateau occurs when upward mobility and progress stall in your professional life. You might feel stuck in a position with no clear path to advancement or personal growth. Often associated with a lack of motivation and boredom, reaching this stage can be frustrating and discouraging. Eventually, you develop a sense that your skills and talents are not being used to their full potential and that your tasks no longer provide as much satisfaction as they once did.

Unlike a temporary rut, this is generally a longer-lasting period where your career seems stagnant. The indications can include a lack of new challenges, minimal salary increases, and even feelings of disengagement.

To address a plateau in your career, you must first realize that you’ve reached it. It may be difficult to accept this fact, but denial will not help you move forward. A career plateau doesn’t mean the end of your professional growth; instead, it signals the need for action. 

Causes of career stagnation 

  • Lack of skill development: Your career can suffer when you stop learning new skills. Taking on different challenges or roles that require a diverse skill set may be difficult.
  • Limited networking: Having no professional network can lead to fewer opportunities. Networking can provide valuable insights and open doors you never knew existed.
  • Organizational structure: Sometimes, the company’s setup prevents upward mobility. A flat organizational structure can leave you with fewer managerial roles to aim for, limiting your advancement opportunities.
  • Economic factors: A recession or financial difficulties can halt promotions and raises. Survival often takes priority over career advancement in these circumstances.
  • Job market saturation: Too many qualified candidates can limit advancement opportunities in some fields. It is harder to stand out and move up in a saturated market.
  • Comfort zone: Staying in your comfort zone will cause you to plateau. It’s impossible to grow if you aren’t taking on new tasks.
  • Lack of recognition: Not receiving recognition or rewards for your efforts affects your motivation. It can be hard to push yourself to the next level if you do not receive the right incentives.

Types of career plateaus

  • Structural plateau: In this case, your upward mobility is restricted by the organization’s structure. For example, managerial and higher-level positions may be limited in a flat organizational hierarchy.
  • Content plateau: The tasks and projects you’re working on are no longer engaging or challenging. As your day-to-day work becomes routine, your job satisfaction declines.
  • Skill plateau: You may not be acquiring new skills despite being proficient in your current role. In this type of career plateau, you excel at your current responsibilities but lack access to new opportunities that will help you grow.
  • Salary plateau: You reach this level when you’re not seeing any significant compensation increases. Although you may still enjoy your work, financial progress has ceased.
  • Economic plateau: This type is largely out of your control and caused by economic conditions. Downsizing, budget cuts, and recessions can make it impossible to move up the career ladder or even maintain your current position.
  • Industry plateau: Advances in technology and automated processes can cause your skill set to become outdated. Avoiding this particular dilemma requires staying on top of industry trends.

Signs you are in a career plateau

Lack of professional growth

You may be experiencing a career plateau if you have not received a promotion, salary increase, or significant project to tackle in a long time. There’s a risk of stagnation if you see no signs of advancement or increased responsibility in your job. Besides reflecting a lack of professional growth, these signs can lead to decreased motivation and unhappiness at work. Identify whether the issue is temporary or indicative of a deeper problem. It will be easier to devise an effective plan of action if you understand the cause of the stagnation.

Decline in job satisfaction

You may notice a decline in overall satisfaction at work during a career plateau. It is challenging to remain engaged when once-exciting projects become boring. Lack of enthusiasm, reduced commitment to projects, or even frequent absences are all signs of declining satisfaction. It’s time to address the underlying issue if you find yourself counting down to weekends and dreading Mondays. A drop in job satisfaction is not just harmful to your career; it can also impact your mental health.

Reduced learning and skill development

There is always something new to learn in a thriving career. But if your skills aren’t improving and your learning curve has flattened, then you are probably experiencing a career plateau. Having little to no exposure to new ideas, technologies, or soft skills like leadership and negotiation can cause this issue. Lack of learning can make you less competitive in the job market and decrease your value as an employee.

Decreased motivation and productivity

The loss of enthusiasm and energy for tasks you once enjoyed suggests a plateau in motivation. Your perception of growth and reward is directly related to your motivation. In a vicious cycle, decreased motivation leads to reduced productivity, resulting in fewer opportunities for advancement. Breaking this cycle requires strategic intervention to reignite your passion for work.

Lack of connection to company goals

You are generally aligned with your company’s goals and culture when exceling in your career. However, feeling disconnected from the company’s goals may indicate your career stagnating. Disconnection may manifest as indifference to team meetings, lack of interest in company news, or skepticism about the organization’s direction. Without a sense of belonging to the bigger picture, you lose interest in your role, keeping you at a plateau. To resolve this, you must realign yourself with your goals and reassess your fit within the organization.

How to overcome a career plateau

Reevaluate career goals

Taking a hard look at your career goals is the first step. Consider what you want to accomplish in the next five years and whether your current job aligns with those aspirations. You may reach a career plateau if you are in a role that does not match your long-term vision. Reassessing your goals will allow you to align them with your role or seek positions that offer your desired growth. Establishing clear objectives serves as a roadmap, helping to identify opportunities that can break the stagnation cycle.

Invest in skill development

Create a professional development plan if you don’t feel challenged professionally. Developing new skills can make you more productive and competitive, whether mastering new software or improving your leadership abilities. Learn which skills are most beneficial by taking online courses, attending workshops, or consulting with mentors. New skills can qualify you for new roles within your current organization or make you more marketable for other positions. Select skills that will prove valuable both now and in the future.

Expand your network

Career growth requires networking. Meet professionals in your industry, attend seminars, or join online communities specific to your career path. By networking, you can learn how others are growing their careers. You may find something you never knew existed, like a job opening or a project that matches your skill set perfectly.

Seek mentorship

Mentors who have faced similar challenges can provide insights tailored to your situation. In addition to providing constructive criticism, they can provide you with solutions you hadn’t considered or even connect you with industry opportunities. An outside perspective may be just what you need to take meaningful career steps. Find a career mentor whose career trajectory you admire and whose advice you value.

Consider a career pivot

It might be time to alter your career path if you’ve tried multiple strategies and still feel stuck. Switching departments, moving to a different role, or even working on a side project that aligns with your professional interests could be the answer. Pivoting can help you gain a new perspective, tackle new challenges, and reignite your passion for the job. This type of move should, of course, be well thought out and aligned with your long-term career goals.

Consult with a career coach

Sometimes, a professional’s opinion is necessary to provide the insight to break free. Career coaches help individuals identify their career paths, set realistic goals, and build strategies to achieve them. Getting help from a coach can give you new tools for tackling stagnation. They can identify the causes behind the career plateau and offer you actionable advice. Investing in professional advice could very well set the stage for a successful career.

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn