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Career Paths and Career Plateaus


What is a Career Plateau?

Many people experience the situation at one point during their career of becoming 'stuck' with little or no movement up the career ladder, either for professional or personal reasons. The main cause of this is usually the pyramidal structure of organizations, which has fewer positions than aspirants at each higher level of the organizational ladder. The way most United Nations organisations are structured is a good example of this. The 'plateauing' of one's career is often accompanied, and thus identified, by feeling of boredom, frustration, tension, loss of enthusiasm, lack of team effort or lack of commitment.

With this in mind, the following information aims at raising awareness and understanding of career plateaus, in order to assist staff to better manage these professional challenges.

A career plateau is:

  • The point where the likelihood of additional hierarchical promotion is very remote;

  • The point where there are few internal opportunities for advancement;

  • A period in which an individual's learning rate does not improve;

  • A time of perceived or actual professional stagnation.


Different Kinds of Career Plateaux

Structural Plateau

When one has progressed to a point where the organizational structure prevents him or her from moving up, due to non-availability of vacancies in higher grades. This happens to most of us sooner or later.

Content Plateau

When one has mastered the job and there is no longer a sense of challenge in the current position.

Contribution Plateau

When one has ceased growing and searching for learning opportunities to develop competencies and add value, becoming unable to respond to changing situations or to keep up with technological changes. Individuals have significant control over the forces that create contribution-based plateau; if one lets this happen, his or her value will decline rapidly.

Damaged Reputation Plateau

When critical behaviours or events put a temporary stall on career progression. Sometimes these may be self inflicted, sometimes by association with a particular department, supervisor or mission, and sometimes a combination of both. However, it is important to understand that reputation can vary over time for the same individual and that positive reputation can be restored.

Life Plateau

When one experiences a loss of identity, direction, meaning or self-esteem, or when one undergoes self-doubt in his or her life, not just in the job. In many ways this is the most serious plateau, especially when combined with working in a post conflict context.


Strategies for Dealing with a Career Plateau

The strategies for dealing with a career plateau, whatever the kind, revolve around two main actions: reflection and reassessment.

Restructure your view of success

Explore ways to feel successful on the job apart from 'moving up', such as lateral moves, taking on new and different assignments in an existing job, going more in-depth in your area of expertise or even changing your working area as a whole.

Manage expectations

Let go of the notion of regular promotions and instead concentrate on your job satisfiers. Enrich the status quo: seek out a special challenging assignment, such as a special project, additional task, covering someone's duties while he or she is away (job rotation), or committee work.

Seek a career move

Pursue a change within the organization, seek a geographical move to a new Duty Station or, perhaps, to a different organization. Move sideways (consider a cross-training) to find excitement and challenge through a new environment.

Explore new learning

Return to school, take training (IT, managerial, technical, supervisory, etc.), explore a sabbatical to develop a skill, register for a degree/non-degree/certificate programme, do a cross-training, acquire or perfect a UN language (in-situ, intensive study or self-study, individual tutors or CD-ROMs), maintain or expand your understanding of trends in your field (which can be done though effective networking or mentoring).

Manage your reputation

  1. Identify the origin of your damaged reputation: is it self-inflicted, related to a particular department, supervisor or mission, or a combination of both?

  2. Confront the origin of your bad reputation. Is it based on true events or made up? If made up, find a way to ensure that the truth is known.

  3. Assess your own behaviour and/or that of your department, supervisor or mission if necessary. Is there anything you can do to avoid the critical behaviours or events from re-happening?

  4. Take accountability for your actions and for the actions of your department or mission and make a commitment to improve.

  5. Counteract your damaged reputation with positive and constructive acts and behaviours on a continuous manner.

Find your balance

Find time for yourself and focus on the positive aspects of your life and on what makes you happy. Find new things or experiences to be excited about. Reassess your goals and the plans you have to achieve them; are you on the right path or does it need some readjustment?


Career Plateaus and Taking Control

Remember that, as with most aspects of career development, being in a career plateau does not mean the end of the line. The individual is largely responsible for his or her own career path, and recognizing that you may be in a career plateau is the first step in making the necessary professional changes or adjustments in your life.