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Has Your Career Reached a Plateau? Here’s Why!

How do others in your organization perceive you? This is a challenging question to answer, as most of us don’t engage in these types of conversations. It’s an important question, however. How others, particularly key leaders, perceive you directly influence the level you will reach in your organization.

Most professionals tend to focus their efforts on performance. Not only is it easier to observe and measure, it’s also where most feedback is directed. Performance reviews, one on one meetings, etc. tend to focus on the work itself – the outcomes. Actual performance is just one piece of the puzzle, however.

How many times have you seen a stellar performer passed over for a promotion in favor of a seemingly less qualified candidate? Perhaps you’ve actually been this stellar performer at one time or another. If so, you probably felt confused, frustrated, or resentful. More often than not, that decision was made because the decision-makers perceived the other candidate more favorably, despite the disparities in performance.

This tends to happen more often at higher levels of the organization, which is why many mid-level professionals are left scratching their heads. At the lower levels, advancement decisions are more often based on performance, so high performers shine pretty quickly. At higher levels of the organization, however, decisions tend to more heavily reflect less tangible qualities, such as influence, communication style, and leadership potential.

Here is a fairly common scenario: Jim, a mid-level professional, was promoted very quickly in the early stages of his career because he proved himself to be a highly competent employee. He is a subject-matter expert and a consistently high performer. As he rose through the ranks, however, Jim reached a plateau and just can’t seem to advance beyond this level. His performance reviews are generally positive, but he continues to be overlooked for new opportunities.

Jim is a strong performer, but he doesn’t have a great reputation in the organization. He hasn’t taken the time to build strong relationships with influential people, so key decision-makers don’t know him very well. Additionally, his style is a bit abrasive, which tends to rub people the wrong way. Jim excels at meeting deadlines, but to do so, he tends to keep his head down. His team perceives him as cold and difficult to engage.

Unfortunately, this feedback has never been presented to Jim. The only feedback he’s ever received has been with regard to his performance, which has always been strong. He is now frustrated by his inability to advance, and entirely unaware of the areas he needs to address.

If you’ve reached a plateau, or you’re committed to ensuring you don’t, take the time to learn how others perceive you. This can be challenging, but here are several approaches you can take:

1. Pay attention to how others respond to you. When you speak, do others appear energized and attentive? Or do they seem to tune out, roll their eyes, or show other signs of disapproval? Do others seek you out? Do they seem to view you as a leader? Do people seem to like and respect you? These cues should provide some clues about how others feel about you.

2. Request feedback from people you trust. Ask trusted colleagues how they and others perceive you. Let them know you’re working on making some changes and are genuinely interested in their feedback. When they do provide feedback, be sure to accept it without becoming defensive.

3. Engage in a 360-degree review. You may need to consult with your manager or HR organization to conduct this formal review. This is an excellent way to obtain candid feedback from people at different levels of the organization (i.e. your manager, second-level manager, peers, etc.). You choose the respondents, so be sure to select people who will provide useful feedback.

Managing how others perceive you is as important to your career success as maintaining a high level of performance. As early as possible in your career, make an effort to determine what attributes your organization values and how consistent these are with your style. If you are committed to advancing in your organization: a) decide how you want to be perceived and focus on achieving this perception, b) periodically use informal or formal measures to gauge these perceptions, c) incorporate any changes you’d like to make into your professional development plan, and d) find one or more influential mentors that can help you.

What steps have you taken to manage how others perceive you? Has this been a focus of your own career management strategy?

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