Yet the first reaction to a career stall, I've observed, is usually denial. Once, in Chicago, when I was giving a speech about career management, a woman in the audience asked me why newer employees in her company kept moving up the ladder before she'd had her turn. It wasn't fair, she lamented—after all, she'd been working in the same position, as a logistics supervisor at a trucking company, for five years. "Are they passing me by because new hires are cheaper for the company?" she wanted to know. I told her it was possible but unlikely. "Given how companies usually work," I said, "it's probably because their performance is better."
She winced, and I cringed. My intention had not been to hurt her feelings but to snap her into reality, because the longer you deny a career stall, the more likely it will turn into a nosedive. Later, when we spoke after my speech, I began to explain as much, but she cut me off to say that, deep in her gut, she already knew she was in trouble.
As we started talking about why, it turned out that this woman's story embodied all three of the most common reasons careers stall. First of all, she was dying of boredom. Her job, coordinating the movement of her company's Midwestern fleet of 200 trucks, had become rote and lost any meaning it once held for her. "I loved it when I started," she said. "I made mistakes. I was learning something. But now I could do it in my sleep."
Her disillusionment reminded me of a letter I'd just received from a woman who worked at a national child welfare agency. "I passed up a six-figure offer at a consulting firm to take this job because I believed I would help change the world," she wrote. Instead, over time, she found herself paralyzed within an organization riddled with bureaucracy and internecine warfare, her days spent deflecting memos and preparing reports no one would read. She could barely drag herself to work every day. "Nothing I do makes a difference," she wrote. "And I've lost all interest in trying."
Such disengagement often leads to the second common reason for a career stall, which is underperformance. Who shines on the job when she's bored? But boredom isn't the only reason performance suffers. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from an architect who was practically in despair, describing how hard her job had become. "Count me among the old dogs who cannot learn new tricks," she said. "But here I am at a certain age, unable to keep up with the pace that one advancement in technology after another has brought to my profession." Another woman I know, a medical researcher, started to stall when a new boss in her department at a Boston hospital tried to impress his new bosses by demanding more reports in shorter time frames. "My former boss thought I walked on water," she told me. The new boss exposed her professional weaknesses. "I work slowly, especially if it has to do with writing," she said. "I've missed more deadlines in the past six months than in my entire career. I probably won't be fired, but I certainly won't be sent to the usual medical conferences this year."