Scaling Your Career Plateau

If your career is like a river, your next promotion might lead you up a mountain wall. How to see it in time to steer clear?

In that post I explained that your career, like a river, flows from the mountain peak where you entered the labor market, down to your sea-side final career move. There would be rapids to help you along, career switches as the river meanders, and lakes where experience resides that awaits a future function to call on it.

But I have also explained how competence is a great factor in achieving all this, and how people are terrible at judging their own competencies clearly. What seems easy for them might be difficult for most other people, and they think too low of their talent. Equally, they might be very pleased with their results, but actually perform less well than others who’ve had more talent or training.

As people achieve functions they are not competent to perform, they hit a brick wall. This is called “promotion to incompetence” and is costly for the company, damaging for your career and potentially shattering for the self-esteem.

The Career Plateau

The point just before this happens, when you are in danger of being promoted to a function you are not capable or willing to perform, is your career plateau. In many cases, it’s not easily recognizable except in hindsight, and represents a happy place where you combine the best rewards, personal well-being and job execution.

This is the place where your next promotion asks too much of your talent, or requires competencies you have not built (yet). It generates a lot more stress than you had in your previous role, and you might not even realize where it is coming from. You spend more time on your job than before, just to get passable results. You fear your update meetings with your manager, you fret at your performance review, and might even be afraid to go to work in the morning. You feel that your work is passing you by and leaves you behind, out of control.

You’ve been promoted off the plateau.

Once you leave that plateau, you are actually climbing up a mountain, entering a very difficult period in your career. The bad news is that it can be very hard to recognize the plateau before stepping off it, and that once you do you can only mitigate the damage, not prevent it. The good news is that finding this plateau gives you immense insight into yourself, and will allow you to rebalance your career for the better.

First I will try to sketch a rough system to analyze for yourself how you’re doing, and how close you are to the edge of the plateau. Then, I will give you some ideas on how to prevent leaving the plateau – until you are ready. Finally, some quick strategies on handling the situation if you realize you’ve teetered off the plateau and want a way out.

“Feeling the Numbers”

There is no hard-and-fast scientific method that I am aware of that tells you when you’ve reached the end of your career comfort zone. It can be expressed in numeric values (as we will see) but those are rough estimates, a value to challenge your perceptions.

Given that people are bad at judging for themselves, have these values checked by your family and loved ones, to see if you are on the mark.

All jobs combine a number of ratios which determine their “value” to you:

  • Reward/Compensation to Effort
  • Stress/Workload to Wellbeing
  • Development/Growth to Competence

Each of these represents a value based on pure, personal feelings – it is very subjective. Simply give it a score from 1 to 10, and divide the second of the pair by the first to form a ratio.

For example, if I believe that my reward is 10, and my Effort 5, my ratio is 10/5 or 0.5. That represents a pretty good reward for my efforts.

Reward to Effort: Do I feel I am properly rewarded for the amount of work I have to do?

This represents the compensation you receive per amount of work put into it. At less than 0.5 you may feel light on your feet, you can easily finish you work, and you receive enough reward to live and save up. At more than 1.5 you might feel that you barely get the work done on time, or your finances may be pressured. 

Stress to Wellbeing: How much pressure does my job put on me, compared to my ability to handle it?

Any job can put stress on people, wearing them down over time. To recharge this, people go on holidays, get support from their peers, or need other ways to relax. At less than 0.5 you might feel that the work is low on stress, or there are many options to uplift your wellbeing (such as good relations with peers, or a nice work environment). At more than 1.5 your job causes a lot of stress and you feel tired a lot. You might not have much support from colleagues (or even competition and office politics) or the environment might be cold and impersonal.

Growth to Competence: How much do I feel I can grow in this role, compared to the competence required to perform it?

This ratio represents the difference between how competent you need to be to perform the job compared to how much growth you can have while performing it over time. At a ratio less than 0.5 you feel confident you can do your job, or expect to develop a great deal in it (“growing into it” as it is sometimes called). At more than 1.5 you might find that you lack some critical skills to get the job done right (which you compensate by getting help or spending more time, at the cost of more stress) or the job doesn’t offer many – or any –  opportunities to grow and learn new things until you move on from it.

Drawing Conclusions

Any time you feel that your ratios go over 1, and certainly 1.5, it means that the “costs” for your job are overtaking the “benefits”. This means you may have to find ways to improve those ratios – ask for a raise, take more time off, find better ways of doing your job, get educated, and so on.

However, you can also use these ratios to describe a job you are being promoted to. Often, this does not come as a surprise. You’ve been doing your job well, and suddenly your manager resigns – you are asked to step in. Or, you’ve been excelling at a particular subject and a position in another department opens up where you could expand on that expertise.

In all cases, you will know what kind of stresses and workload are involved, and what kind of competences are required to fit in. This in turn, tells you what kind of reward and additional wellbeing you would need in order to keep a healthy ratio. If you can’t get that, then the job is likely to be damaging to you, and you should seriously consider whether you want to make that move or not. Likewise, it might be a great upgrade in terms of rewards, but if there is not growth to be had (a “dead end” promotion) then it is going to make advancing your career later on much harder without applying for a job at another company.

Especially alarming is a situation where, by your reasoning, the ratios shift a great deal into the negative. If you’ve had a work/stress level of 0.5 before and are moving past 1.5 all in one go, that’s a sure sign of trouble!

Handling The Plateau Edge

There are three major strategies on handling a position where you are to be promoted, but you are in danger of ending up over-stressed, under-rewarded or promoted to incompetence.

Respectfully decline: If you believe your next promotion will set you up to fail or make you worse off in terms of stress or rewards, you could decline the promotion. In an ideal situation you can honestly say that you believe that the job’s rewards are not worth your effort, but this might be responded to with an “offer you cannot refuse” or an assertion that you will be “rewarded later on as you prove your competence”. This latter thing never seems to pan out, in reality.

Rather, personal circumstances are always a good excuse for refusing a promotion. “We’re thinking about having a child, and the added time required and stress would not be healthy when we have a baby to consider” or “This position requires international management connections and I would much prefer to maintain a local touch” are fine. “I am happy in my current role” is a perfectly good answer, but this is a relatively abrupt answer and might prevent you from being promoted when you are ready and asking for it.

On the whole, there is an unspoken expectation that you could decline a promotion twice using such excuses. A third time will be damaging to your career prospects and will make management think you’re without ambition. At such a time, you’d have to use one of the other methods, or prepare for finding a new job.

Negotiate better terms: If competence is not your direct worry, feel free to negotiate better terms for yourself. Additional workload and stress could be mitigated by better rewards, asking for more mandate or more flexible hours. The ratios you’ve sketched for yourself should give you an indication what area needs attention. Since you’re asked for a promotion and have the competence, you are likely to have more negotiation space than you think. Don’t tell yourself you’re presented with a done deal! You are in charge of your own career.

You could also be asked to be installed “ad interim” for a trial period, to have an honest idea of the difficulties involved, for a year at most. There should be regular checkups and at the half-year point a decision made on whether you feel comfortable, or someone else would need to be installed on a more permanent basis.

Perhaps it turns out that you have the required mandate to make positive changes, or your previous boss had piled their responsibilities on you anyway so you’re effectively doing the same job (it happens). In that case, you can keep the promotion and you will still be on the plateau for now. In the worst case scenario, it is what you expected, but you can take up your old job without loss of face. You can also add interim role experience to your resume, for later career moves.

Competently avoid a promotion to incompetence: If competence IS your worry, then you might see a problem that your superiors do not. Maybe you are more competent than you think, you overestimated the talent required for the job, or your superiors don’t have an adequate image of the role and simply are promoting you because you are “there” and “have working knowledge”. That latter assumption is very dangerous to you and the company.

In this case, make sure to have an open and functional meeting with your management. Take initiative, set up a meeting. Explain to them the image you have of the role, and the opportunities and difficulties you see in it. Show them any plans you might have to mitigate problems, but also where you would need additional education and support/coaching to succeed.

Likely they will be impressed, potentially alarmed, by your statements. Perhaps this leads them to reconsider you for the promotion, but do so by hiring a person more fitting with the role. This is not a bad thing, even though it might feel bad for your self-esteem. On the other hand, it is also possible that they do have faith in your ability, and are willing to invest in your competence and support you while you learn. This means you might actually “bust the plateau” and create all-new avenues for your career!

When You’ve Left The Plateau

If you find yourself promoted to incompetence, over-worked and underpaid, the strategies for getting out are more limited. In all cases, how you handle this may improve or worsen you career perspectives from then out.

Leave your job: The easiest way to do this is to start looking for a job that matches your competence and reward requirements. The difficult part is where you will be looked at funnily for soliciting under your current job level, and you’d need to explain that. Old standbys like “I am looking for a better work-life balance” or “I am looking to develop into a new role or industry” should do the trick.

Ask for a demotion: If your company is open and transparent, you might simply be able to tell your superiors that you (and them) made a mistake to take up this role. Gracefully stepping down to your old role after they found a successor might earn you a lot of points, and you maintain your connections with your colleagues and company. If your heart goes out to them, this might be a best-case scenario for you.

You will not likely be considered for any additional promotions, so if you are ambitious you may eventually need to look somewhere else. Should you be more interested in maintaining your current life, but with better health and happiness, then go for it. That said, the courage to ask for a demotion is often remembered as a good trait, and there are forms of side-ways career movement that seem like you are doing a calculated move while really stepping away from a hazardous job experience.

Work at it: If the job is stressful or requires a lot of effort, you might be able to invest some time in improving that. Part of your job might be to actually analyze such failures in people and process, and creating plans to mitigate it. Your predecessor (your old boss) might have neglected this, and this might have led to their own leaving. If stress and workload are the issue, working smarter – not harder – might help you out here. You do need to clearly tell management that this is the issue, and how you are working on it, else they might not give you the slack required to complete what is effectively neglected maintenance.

However, competence is another matter. If you do not have what it takes to do the job, but you are hell-bent on doing that, all you can do is learn. Your company needs to give you the time, support and training to do that. But no amount of training can give you talent you do not possess.

If others continually need to cover for you, do your job for you, or take on extra work to your benefit – you are causing unnecessary stress and workload on others and are damaging your company. At that point, don’t carry on until you reach the breaking point. You will be dismissed, you will have dealt irreparable damage to your department and colleagues, and cost a lot of money. You have gained nothing but time. So instead, choose to either be demoted, or find another job.


Before accepting a promotion blindly, be clear on your expectations and whether it is worth it to you. If you feel like you’re staring up against a wall, you are likely facing the edge of your career plateau. It is in your best interest to remain at this level of competency and reward, but the company might not agree with you. In these cases, it is best to negotiate terms that address your problems, or avoid them altogether by resuming your career in another company.

Once you have determined the values for your plateau, it gives you a lot of insight in what you think is important in life, and what you value in your job. Use this information to adjust your career expectations, and you will find that you can achieve more while maintaining a much more rewarding personal life!

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