Getting out of a career rut

Work Lulls Happen

Career Ruts Affect Senior Managers Most. Here’s How to Get Unstuck

Nearly all professionals have experienced them: frustrating career ruts. When you are not getting what you want, not moving forward, not feeling inspired or challenged.

career ruts

Stuck in a job rut?

These ruts are common, but they vary widely in how deep they are, according to Nancy Halpern, executive coach to Fortune 500 companies and principal of KNH Associates. Digging yourself out of a rut is a different process for everyone.

Career lulls can happen to men and women equally, she stresses, yet they tend to affect senior-level managers more than any other group level. “These professionals have a good routine and privileges. They know that will change if they move somewhere else, but they still have a lot of years in front of them,” she says. Wary of both change and inertia, they begin to feel stuck.

Things Are Not Moving

Why do we get stuck in our jobs? There are many reasons, Halpern explains. Some have to do with the people themselves, as illustrated by these examples she hears from clients:

  • “I have built up power here and a comfortable position. I feel restless, but I am reluctant to leave this perch.”
  • “I am really bored, but I don’t want to leave my team in a lurch.”
  • “The next level up is a global position – I am not prepared to relocate or move overseas.”

Other reasons revolve around the external environment: a mid-level professional who should have been promoted, for example, but was not because of politics or a company merger. Some people working in industries that are experiencing seismic shifts, like retail and hospitality, worry that they will not be able to find another job with the same compensation package. Others see Millennials as a threat, fearing these younger workers with their up-to-date technology skills will leap frog over them. “Even if they are unhappy, they stay in their jobs,” declares Halpern.

Fear underpins much of this feeling of being stalled. And fear is paralytic.

Backing Out of Career Ruts

Pulling out of a rut at work is both a mental and strategic game, Halpern says. On the mental front, you need to understand your tolerance for risk. Getting unstuck means taking risks – learning something new, changing jobs, and jumping into “a new, competitive swimming pools with others,” she says. In the end, you have to measure if the “pain of staying in your position outweighs the pain of changing.” For the seriously risk-averse, that answer might be “no.”

You also need to define what is making you unhappy, and the obstacles that need to be removed to make you satisfied again. Halpern says she has seen people do this in 20 minutes. Others may take much longer.

Strategizing your way out of career ruts is easier. It involves developing a business plan for yourself, advises Halpern. That often starts with going to industry events, and visiting LinkedIn to scout out what other people at your level or the level above you are doing.

The plan does not have to include job hunting, either, she adds. If you like your company but are simply bored in your job, there are ways to turn it around — volunteer for a task force, for instance, join a cause you care about and enlist other employees to help you. “For some it’s a momentary lull. They just need to make smaller changes, like expanding the team, or dropping something they don’t like doing.”

She finds that many “stuck” managers are living in a small bubble. They don’t see what’s happening in the greater industry they work in. To change that, Halpern recommends they get up-to-date with the literature in their fields. They could also lead a lunch session on trends in the industry, write an article for the company newsletter or take on a new project.

Those are the simpler cases. Some professionals are in deeper, longer-running career ruts: “when they look ahead they do not see any evidence that things will change,” explains Halpern. They need to seek help — outside the company, she strongly advises – to determine their options to get unstuck.

Being Adaptable Helps You to Get Unstuck

Which professionals back out of a career dead-end the fastest? Those who remain flexible, according to Halpern. “People who can identify their core strengths, boil them down to three selling points, and apply them in multiple career areas find it much easier.” You have to pick your head up above what you have always done and see other possibilities out there to parlay your skills.

She equates making it through a career lull with holding on to your job after a company takeover: “who survives in an acquisition? It’s not the most talented employees, it’s those who are the most adaptable.”


Kate Rodriguez is a freelance business writer based in Munich. She has an extensive background as an analyst, consultant and writer to public and private organizations. She also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search.