Most humans hate change, yet our brains are wired to appreciate novelty and new things.
Stability is a requirement of successful organizations, but so are innovation and disruption.
Change happens every day, on personal and organizational levels, with or without our participation. It is incumbent on each of us to reflect regularly about change and manage the change we confront or strive to create.
Wisdom on managing personal and organizational change
People have written on change from time immemorial. One of the best ancient sources of change management that remains extraordinarily relevant today, regardless of religious views, is the biblical book of Ecclesiastes—a word traditionally translated as teacher or preacher.
A more recent resource that addresses change and the real life situations that we all deal with in our professional life is Judith Bardwick’s book, The Plateauing Trap: How to avoid it in your career and your life. In a little over two hundred pages, she describes how to deal with the inevitable stage in our professional life when our career is stalled, the work is no longer exciting and the future promises more of the same. She suggests some constructive and creative ways to deal with the dilemma which each and every one of us will face, perhaps multiple times—the only difference is when and how we deal with it.
I heard Judith speak at a librarian convention over a decade ago, when she asked if we are not so much actively unhappy as just not happy. The difference? When we are truly unhappy, change comes easier than when we are simply discontented. When the negatives are powerful, the need for change is obvious. Most of us do not make changes in our lives until the pain in the present eclipses our fear of the future.
After hearing her speak and reading her book, I had a sense of relief, because I understood something that had happened to me. She reminded me that constructive change is evolutionary. It means giving up patterns of attitudes and actions that have served well in the past, but now, in the present or foreseeable future, they no longer do. It involves a process of growth, expanding our capabilities and broadening our involvements.
Three career plateauing problems
According to Judith, we all face three different kinds of plateauing problems: structural, content and life.
- Structural plateauing can best be described as a pyramid—the typical management structure which means at some point, we reach the end of promotions. Many of us who are part of the Baby Boom generation are facing that now—a lot of us and only so many top jobs, especially with the trend during the last couple of decades for organizations to flatten their management hierarchies.
- Content plateauing is when we know our jobs too well. We have become experts in our jobs. Without enough new things to learn, opportunities to grow or progress, we become bored.
- Life plateauing often occurs in middle age, when we feel trapped. We did what we expected to do and have little—except retirement or new and different pursuits—left to look forward to.
Plateauing is when something has stabilized, as it ultimately must, and we start to feel dissatisfied.
Career plateauing or professional development opportunity?
What can we do about plateauing?
I am here to say to you that there is something that we can and must do. We must grow, both professionally and personally, to avoid the three plateaus and guarantee that we will have a more enjoyable present and positive future.
I experienced this myself back in 1973, when I started working in libraries. My first jobs included putting catalog cards into the catalog and faxing, one page at a time on a round drum. Hard to believe how far technology has come in less than fifty years!
Continuing to enhance my knowledge and skills, while at the same time continuing to work in libraries: my career evolved from jobs in a public library, to an academic library at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, to the UMKC Law School library. I then made a switch to the world of special libraries, including a corporate business library, an AmLaw100 law firm, mid-sized law firms and the legal department of a large international bank.
Since 2015 I have been with LAC Group, a company that provides library and information management services to law firms, corporations, federal government agencies, media and entertainment clients and universities. While still working in libraries, my career was constantly changing and I have been able to experience new challenges as new opportunities opened that required learning new skills.
Forty-five years later, I am still working in libraries but doing different things using different and every changing technologies, which is why I am able to continue to say that I love my profession and look forward to work nearly every day.
Library career change management
We can escape the structural plateauing that happens to us professionally in a number of ways:
- By changing pyramids, meaning we have to change companies or learn new skills to take on new roles and responsibilities.
- We can change around within the pyramid by moving geographically, for example, or serving a different kind of client.
- We can change our job, meaning a lateral move if a promotion is not available.
- We can add to our skills/knowledge and apply them in our current position.
Of course, not everyone can become the Librarian of Congress, the Head Librarian at the New York Public Library or the Library Director at Columbia University; but if we keep our job changing in content and keep adding new skills to our arsenal, we can avoid the feeling of structural plateauing.
For a real example of someone who has avoided the plateauing trap, I look to a manager I had at Credit Suisse’s Legal & Compliance Department. She moved geographically from London, to New York, to Zurich, to New York, to Raleigh-Durham and then back to New York — all without leaving the company, but by moving between various departments and divisions. She changed her job duties and responsibilities, and she changed the clients she served. So many changes but the same employment.
Three keys to professional growth and development
I have identified three keys to constantly reinvent one’s self professionally:
- Take on new challenges—seek them out, don’t wait for them to come to you.
- Add to one’s abilities—continuing education and training is essential in today’s digital and knowledge-driven economy.
- Learn new techniques—and use your experience to improve existing techniques and processes.
We have to do these things anyway to continue to exist today in the stressful environment we live in, but if we embrace change as a positive and try to insert it in regular controlled amounts, we can be successful.
As I’ve already stated, continuous learning is necessary for continuous challenge. We can also consider using our knowledge or skills in different ways, such as mentorship, coaching or training. We might consider changing the percentage of time we spend on other commitments, such as giving more time to our children, our hobbies, our community or ourselves.
If we make continued learning and mastery of new problems our path, we will avoid the monotony of life’s plateaus, feel happier and be our best selves, at the same time.
Get out there and accept and embrace change, using it have a more fulfilling life.
Learn more about LAC Group career opportunities:
Visit LibGig, our job site dedicated to librarians and other knowledge and information management professionals.
Download one of our LIS career ebooklets.
Discover what it’s like to work for LAC Group.