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Keeping plateaued managers’ morale high

In my first executive level job, I read “The Plateauing Trap” by Judith M. Bardwick. The insights Bardwick shared in this book were invaluable to me, both in my corporate life and in my consulting practice. The reason: Plateauing is inevitable.

When you accept a job with a company, you envision doing well, receiving a raise in pay after a reasonable amount of time. After several years, you might be offered a promotion, maybe to a supervisor position with responsibility for the performance of several employees.

At some point, however, virtually all workers plateau; they stop receiving all but cost-of-living raises. There are no more promotions. Even owners plateau. Owners may carry a prestigious title for most of their careers, but they soon experience monotony after having to perform the same duties year after year.

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Being there is not nearly as satisfying as getting there. Since plateauing is rarely discussed between a boss and their subordinate, the employee tends to feel that, “Somewhere along the line, a test was given, and I failed.”

There are three kinds of plateauing: Structural, Content and Life. Structural plateauing refers to the end of promotions. People are content plateaued when they know their jobs so well that they become profoundly bored. People are particularly vulnerable to plateauing in life when work becomes the most significant factor in their lives. Being plateaued in life is more profound, more total, and consequently more serious than the other forms of plateauing.

Facts to remember about career plateauing:

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  • It is inevitable. It eventually happens to everyone.
  • It is a normal phase in every career. It is caused by the organization’s structure.
  • Its rate is determined by huge impersonal demographic and economic factors that no individual can change.
  • It is a normal phenomenon and, as such, it is emotionally neutral.
  • It generates significant problems only when promotion is the overwhelmingly important motivator in an organization’s or an individual’s life.

Remember the rule of 99%—in every large and complex organization, the number of positions at the highest decision-making level is always less than one-percent of the number of employees. Only the 1% at the top are not plateaued.

Top management is frequently insensitive to the impact plateauing has on middle managers who have not had a promotion in years. The middle manager is thinking, “I don’t understand why they brought someone in from the outside to fill that job.”

It is often difficult for a middle manager to understand why an outsider is perceived to be more qualified than an existing manager. Existing managers feel better about the decision if they were at least interviewed; that is, considered for the position.

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Ways to boost plateaued people’s self-esteem and keep their productivity and morale relatively high:

  • Call them in for an interview, ask their advice about the way the new position is going to be structured.
  • Reward the veteran employee and spouse by letting them represent the company at an industry convention.
  • Ask the company’s CEO to write the “overlooked” managers a letter thanking them for their willingness to be interviewed for the position.
  • Invite them to a brainstorming weekend retreat with other highly respected managers.
  • Send them to a university-sponsored educational workshop, such as Harvard’s Extension School, to earn a professional certificate.

While plateaued people cannot be avoided, top management can often do a better job of nurturing them.

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