If you feel like you’re doing your job on autopilot, you’re not alone. In 2015, only 32% of U.S. employees said they were actively engaged in their jobs, according to a Gallup poll. For many people, that disengagement is tied closely to a sense that their career development is stagnating.
Please note, however, that stagnation isn’t the same as disliking your job. When you truly hate your gig, you'll likely feel compelled to do something about it, says Anna S.E. Lundberg, a London-based career coach. "On the other hand, it’s those of us who are just plodding along, not hating our careers but also lacking any real engagement with our work who are likely to feel stuck and remain in a role or even a career that has no real future," she adds. Stagnation, therefore, is far worse for one’s career, since it doesn’t lead to any action.
Whitney Johnson, career coach at Harvard’s Executive Education program and author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, uses an S-curve to illustrate how the various stages of a career might look: "At the base of the curve there is slow growth," she says. "It takes time to master new information or skills. At this stage, what may feel like stagnation could in reality be growth, requiring patience and effort until things get more lively."
If you can slog through that slow period, she says, you will rapidly grow and move up until you reach the top of the slope. And that’s when actual stagnation becomes a real risk to your career. But how do you know if you’re in the good part of the S or the bad—or, whether what you’re experiencing is a natural slowdown or an actual career rut? If you answer "no" to three or more of these five questions, you’re stuck in the mud.
Everyone gets bored with work sometimes, but boredom shouldn’t be your everyday. If it is, your motivation will start to erode. Cue the career rut. Whether you know it or not, you need motivation to work hard. Without drive, your career growth is DOA.
If your performance has plateaued, you have no desire to learn anything new, and you don’t feel compelled to go beyond what’s strictly necessary to do your job, it’s time to do a little soul-searching to figure out why, says Marilyn Santiesteban, assistant director of career services at The Bush School at Texas A&M.
Maybe you’ve been doing the same tasks for too long; maybe you need to be challenged more. It’s important to figure out why you’re bored before you can tell truthfully whether you’re in a temporary lull or a not-so-temporary rut.
If you’ve been in your position for that long with no promotion, then it’s probably not going to come, Johnson says. Management likes you right where you are.
Of course, it’s frustrating to be repeatedly passed over for steps up you feel you’ve earned, so you need to figure out why it’s happening. Perhaps your boss doesn’t know you’re interested in moving ahead, or maybe you need to learn a new skill or two to climb to the next step on the ladder. This calls for a frank conversation with the person above you to find out exactly what it would take to get ahead.
Maybe you’ve reached a ceiling in your organization, or if there’s no space for you to move up, Johnson says. And if so, hearing it may just be the call to action you need to move on.
If your company isn’t bringing in any new people and workplace events are always the "same old, same old," then it might not just be you that’s stagnating.
Organizations can also plateau, but when they do, the careers of the company’s employees usually do also. So, while you can learn quickly in the right role with such a company, you’ll eventually stall out as well, Johnson adds.
Check your organization as a whole for signs of stagnation, Santiesteban says. Look for flat sales, retooling of existing products or services rather than creating new ones, executive team members and senior management that have been around forever, or static or slightly shrinking market share.
If you’re consistently "meeting expectations," you’re not "growing in your career."
"Maybe things are not terrible, they’re just okay; fine," Lundberg says. "Is that how you want to live your life? Sort of average, things plodding along but with no passion, no excitement, no real feeling of fulfillment?"
When everything you do at work is only average, it may be time to shake things up. Easier said than done: But you’re going to have to go a little above and beyond if you want to break free from the shackles of stagnation. Take on a new project, or at least give your next project your all.
If you spend your days fantasizing about doing something else, whether it’s a childhood dream or simply changing companies or fields, it’s likely a sign that your career isn’t meeting fundamental needs for you, Lundberg says.
"If you dig into the underlying values behind these fantasies and plans, you may find what’s missing from your current career," she says. "Is it a sense of freedom and independence, the ability to make your own decisions, an opportunity to learn something new, or is it a question of earning more or working less?"
If you can answer those questions, you might be able to re-inject some of those missing elements into your current career, she adds. On the other hand, if you have a passion you’ve been dreaming of following for years, then now may be the time to make it a reality.