Since Thomas Ference, James Stoner, and Kirby Warren’s seminal work first defined the career plateau, researchers have continued to investigate this antithetical phenomenon. This is due to the fact that many employees consider promotions and upward hierarchical movement as synonymous indicators of success at work. The career plateau phenomenon involves situations within which an employee perceives a low likelihood of increased responsibility. There are two types of career plateaus: structural and content. In structural plateauing, the individual becomes unable to rise further in the flattened organization’s pyramid structure and reaches a point where the likelihood of additional hierarchical promotion is very low. Structurally plateaued employees who equate career success with hierarchical movement may become distressed upon acknowledging their plateaus with their current employers. These employees may take action to remove themselves from the situation, withdraw from organizational involvement, and lower their productivity. All of these scenarios provide a rationale for explaining why career plateauing often has a negative connotation.
Judith Bardwick suggested that employees also plateau when their likelihood of increased growth or challenges associated with the current job is low. When increasing job-specific task responsibility that offers developmental opportunities becomes unattainable, an employee is said to experience a content plateau. Content-plateaued employees may already be proficient in their jobs, expect no further challenges to be associated with the job, and feel stifled regarding the job’s content. Content-plateaued employees are no longer intrigued by their work and often feel they have reached a dead end. Many researchers have empirically confirmed the existence of both of these plateau types.
Over the years, career plateauing has been subject to a variety of conceptual interpretations and empirical measurements. Career plateauing has been objectively measured and defined as either age or long job tenure when comparing the plateaued employee with the average workforce member. Objective measures fail researchers in two respects. First, chronological age and length of tenure will vary from industry to industry, and these measures fail to capture the notion of a stalled career. When is one stalled? How can age or tenure be a proxy when individuals often move from company to company or through myriad industries and restart careers at a senior age? Second, objective measures fail to capture one’s personal perception of being plateaued. Plateauing seems to run along a continuum where some individuals perceive being plateaued quickly, while it takes others longer job tenures to feel plateaued. Therefore, the exact time (or age) when someone plateaus varies greatly.
Plateauing has also been measured subjectively as the perception of the individual (or his/her employer) regarding one’s likelihood of increased responsibility. Many have found that the perceptual measure better informs us regarding work attitudes and behaviors than does the objectively measured construct. Some have suggested that there may be different degrees of “plateauedness” and therefore that the career plateau construct should be measured on a continuous scale. While self-reported measures may cause some measurement bias, in the case of career plateauing it appears that perceptual measures truly capture one’s career situation.
Reasons for the Career Plateau
Researchers have suggested different reasons to explain why employees may become plateaued. Once an individual acknowledges that a plateau has occurred, an attribution to explain why it happened is a common psychological process. Firms may plateau employees for either organizational or personal reasons. Within these broad terms, there are specific types of attributions plateaued employees may recognize. First, plateaued employees may perceive that they are plateaued because of the organization’s negative assessment of their capabilities. Individuals may be plateaued because they are seen by the organization either as lacking in ability for higher-level jobs or as not desiring higher-level jobs. Managers within organizations may consciously (or subconsciously) pigeonhole employees as those who are competent and willing to move up the corporate ladder and those who are not. An organization’s assessment of an individual, whether it is accurate or not, may be an antecedent condition that the employee believes created his or her plateaued state.
Another situation in which individuals may suggest organizations have caused their plateaus is due to the narrowing employment pyramid. The organizational structure allows fewer and fewer employees to move up to higher management ranks. Also, downsizing eliminates many middle-management layers of the pyramid. As firms cut employees throughout the organization, the structure becomes flattened, creating even more competition than had previously existed. Since flattened organizational structures are a fact of organizational life for the foreseeable future, fewer higher-level jobs will exist at many firms. These organizational constraints may effectively plateau employees.
An employee’s personal preference may be offered as a reason for being plateaued. This reason may become more prevalent given today’s high percentage of dual-career couples in the workforce. Some individuals explicitly make their desires known not to be promoted further, while others send ambiguous signals to the organization or place constraints on proposed promotions. The typical employee during the 1970s was the strongly committed, ideal “organization man,” whose every desire focused on staying with the company for life and progressing at a sure and steady pace up the hierarchy. Hardly any of these individuals chose being plateaued. However, few of today’s workers embody the “organization man.” Individuals may choose for personal reasons, such as family or health, not to seek additional responsibilities. This is true for both men and women, since both may be juggling work and family responsibilities. Also, an individual may not feel that the added stress (or income) associated with the promotion is worth what the person may have to give up to do the job. In summary, individuals may be plateaued for organizational assessment, organizational constraint, or personal-choice reasons.
Examples of Career Plateau Reasons
Given that two types of plateaus, structural and content, have been identified, along with the reasons one might plateau, a discussion is warranted on the typical plateau attributions an employee might give for his or her plateau status. For example, an employee may be structurally plateaued for organizational assessment reasons. An employee may not receive future promotions because management believes the individual lacks the managerial ability or skills needed for higher-level jobs. Or the organization may believe that the employee is not truly committed to the organization or lacks the desire to rise through the ranks. Hence, the organization has made an assessment of the individual that precludes that employee from career advancement within the firm.
Employees may be structurally plateaued due to organizational constraints. The lack of positions may be caused by a poor economy, downsizing, inappropriate recruiting and staffing efforts targeted at the same population, or an enlarged management rank. In any of these examples, the actions of the organization have resulted in employees who are structurally plateaued, with no opportunity for hierarchical advancement. The employee has been plateaued in this case due to issues outside the employee’s (and maybe the firm’s) control.
An employee may also be structurally plateaued for personal-choice reasons. It may be that the employee does not desire a higher-level job, stemming from non-work-related issues. In these cases, the reason the employee is structurally plateaued may have everything to do with the personal choices the individual makes (e.g., not wanting/needing the stress associated with higher-level jobs, not taking a promotion because of possible need for family transfer or health reasons). This situation occurs when one makes a conscious decision and takes control of one’s career and therefore may be referred to as being structurally plateaued for personal-choice reasons.
Individuals may be content plateaued for either organizational or personal reasons. When the organization has negatively assessed the employee’s capabilities, the employee may not receive any further increases in responsibility associated with the current job. The organization may believe that the employee doesn’t have managerial or technical skills, ability, desire, or work ethic to manage more advanced tasks. This is oftentimes deemed being “put out to pasture.”
Also, the organization may place constraints on the individual’s job such that no further learning may take place. These constraints may include inflexible job descriptions or unavailable training. The employee may want additional increases in responsibility but does not receive them because of personnel decisions imposed by the organization. This may cause the employee to perceive that there is little growth opportunity in the job and hence creates a perception of content plateauing for organizational constraint reasons.
An individual may decide for personal reasons that declining additional increases in responsibility in the current job is agreeable with other life domains. The additional workload associated with more responsibility doesn’t seem worth the extra effort. There may be no additional financial remuneration for the excessive work hours; family responsibilities may suffer; or physical or emotional health may be jeopardized. This would be an example of content plateauing for personal-choice reasons.
This summary of the career plateau phenomenon is meant to bring closure to the lack of consensus among researchers about construct definitions. Individuals who experience career plateaus may experience one or both of its two types, structural and content. Within these types of plateaus, there are also reasons to which individuals may attribute their plateaued states. Organizational assessment, organizational constraint, and personal choice are either external or internal decisions that affect the employee’s work situation.
Negative Outcomes Associated with Plateaus
Career plateauing is an important issue for researchers to examine because of the potentially negative outcomes that may affect both the employee and the organization. Career plateauing has been found to produce negative work attitudes and reflects disappointments stemming from one’s work domain. Plateaued employees are described as displaying low levels of job involvement and work motivation. Plateaued employees become less job involved because they believe that the organization has devalued their contributions. Employees who perceive that the organization does not care about them report lower levels of involvement in job responsibilities. The organization has plateaued the individual, and this action causes a blow to the individual’s self-image. The employee responds with a low level of job involvement as a behavior that is consistent with his or her perception of the situation. The resulting behavior often involves lower job productivity, and plateauing has been found to be negatively related to performance.
Few researchers have investigated the relationship of one’s plateaued type to job involvement. Structural plateauing and content plateauing have both been found to be negatively related to job involvement. Researchers have found that structurally plateaued technical specialists report lower job involvement than their non-plateaued counterparts, and state government employees who report being content plateaued also report low job involvement. This negative relationship between both structural/content plateauing and job involvement would be expected given the definition of job involvement.
Plateaued employees report low levels of job satisfaction and career satisfaction. Researchers have found that both structural and content plateauing are negatively related to personal development satisfaction, while content plateauing is related to task dissatisfaction. Others have found that both structural and content plateauing are negatively related to both job and career satisfaction.
Plateaued employees also exhibit a greater propensity for leaving the organization. Results have shown that content plateauing has a negative effect on affective commitment to the organization. This type of employee reaction to career plateauing results in a loss of employee morale and productivity and leads to turnover, which may prove very costly to organizations.
While the organization may experience negative repercussions when the employee experiences a plateau, the employee may also realize some personal consequences. Harmful psychological effects include lower self-worth due to promotions being taken away, lower skill assessment, and less acceptance by peers and superiors due to devalued work contributions. Plateaued employees may experience negative stereotyping as “deadwood,” neglect by supervisors, and avoidance by coworkers.
Work-related stress and strain have been examined as outcomes of an employee’s plateau state. Structurally plateaued employees have reported greater work-related stress than have non-plateaued employees. Researchers have found that both structural- and content-plateaued employees experience high levels of job strain and that structurally plateaued employees report experiencing high levels of job-induced tension. Although these studies used various stress scales, there seems to be consistency in the direction of these relationships.
It is conceivable that the reasons for structural and content plateauing could be considered work stressors. This may be particularly true when the reason for becoming plateaued is outside the employee’s control. For example, structurally plateaued employees may become distressed upon acknowledging there are no more available positions; that is, there are organizational constraints disallowing further promotions. Some suggest that the mismatch between professional employees’ advancement desires and available positions, due to shorter corporate ladders, is a significant source of stress. Employees may become distressed should they perceive that the organization has negatively assessed their abilities and therefore has structurally plateaued them for organizational assessment reasons. Content-plateaued employees may respond similarly when they acknowledge that their jobs will no longer be challenging or that they offer little growth, little flexibility, or few increases in job responsibility. Bardwick once noted that the end of job challenge can generate as much stress as the end of the hierarchical or structural climb.
Researchers have found that stress regarding career progression may be equal among people of various career anchors and more prevalent among early career stage professionals. Both male and female employees expect the same chances for career progression and have similar aspirations and social expectations for advancement. Since the firm is taking those opportunities away, employees may become distressed upon realization of their plateau status.
Positive Outcomes Associated with Plateaus
Although many negative sentiments have been associated with career plateaus, plateaued employees appreciate a few positive experiences. Most important, some research suggests that given the flattened organizational structures common to many companies, experiencing a career plateau may not be as embarrassing or stressful as it once was. In fact, the plateau event may not be a unique situation but rather the norm for many employees’ career progressions. From this perspective, plateaus may be more common and acceptable periods in one’s career than was previously thought.
Plateaus are a time when new ideas are digested. They afford highly desirable stable, secure, and restful periods. Plateaus allow for reflection and offer individuals time to regroup and plan the next phase of personal and professional growth. Plateaus permit the employee the time to assimilate new knowledge and integrate that knowledge into his or her functional repertoire. From a more pragmatic perspective, plateaus allow time to “de-stress” and also to take stock of and reinforce accomplishments. Some employees may even hope for a plateau due to their inability to cope with the stress that career mobility and progression impose. In fact, plateaued university employees have reported a greater likelihood of staying with and being committed to their organizations.
Plateaued employees are expected to invest less of themselves in the job and more in nonwork activities. According to compensatory theory, disappointments in one sphere of life tend in some way to be made up for in another sphere. Therefore, plateaued employees psychologically distance themselves from work by becoming more involved in nonwork issues. Individuals become involved in these nonwork activities in order to perform well in another domain and maintain their self-esteem. Similarly, plateaued employees may devote more time to their families, leisure interests, and community activities. Researchers have suggested that plateaued employees realize their needs are not being fulfilled within the workplace and look to other life domains for fulfillment. These studies suggest that employees experience positive non-work-related outcomes because of their plateau status.
Opportunities for Future Research
There are many opportunities for future career-plateauing research. First, researchers need to be aware of the conceptual differences between the structural and content plateau construct types noted herein and pursue studies that validate these constructs. Also, more research needs to investigate the reasons for career plateaus and their effects on work and nonwork outcomes.
Second, it is acknowledged that the current definition of career plateau holds a relatively narrow perspective of career mobility within an organization. It is also acknowledged that the boundaryless career, in which the employee is self-reliant in forging his or her career across organizational boundaries, is becoming the norm. This type of career requires lifelong learning to allow individuals to become functionally capable and marketable. Employees are shifting their notions of careers from an organizational advancement focus to a professional achievement orientation. Therefore, the notion of the professional plateau may be a more timely construct for researchers. However, like career plateau, the definition of professional plateau needs greater clarity.
Third, researchers may want to analyze and recognize the differences between plateaus and permanently stalled careers, and when situations require career shifts. It will not be uncommon in the future for individuals to have as many as 10 different careers. Although lateral moves are excluded from the definition of career plateau, the effects of lateral moves on individuals’ perceptions of either career or professional plateauing and work outcomes need to be investigated, given the economy today.
Finally, individual or situational factors may explain why some plateaued employees succeed while others suffer negative psychological, social, or organizational effects. What discriminates plateaued employees who are successful from those who are not needs to be explored. Given that many employees will have stalled careers, organizations want to maintain as many solid contributors as possible. Chaos theory has been used in the counseling literature to help explain how plateaued employees deal with the events that lead to their perceptions of being plateaued. Future research should consider chaos theory, or other theories outside the management literature, as part of the remedial process of coping with the plateau trigger event.
The notion of a career plateau will continue to intrigue researchers for some time, due to the complexities associated with career management. Whether individuals are in organizationally bounded or boundaryless careers, some pause in career progression should be expected. How and why careers become plateaued and the outcomes associated with these situations, which affect individuals and organizations, will provide many future research opportunities.
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