11 Lessons for Those Feeling “Stuck” or “Trapped” in their Careers

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Have you ever had the feeling of being “stuck” or “trapped” in a career or job? Most people have at one time or another.

The question of what to do with this “stuck” feeling is vital for anyone facing a challenging season, and is at the heart of what I’d like to engage in this brief reflection.

Changing Your Work Context

Sometimes this experience or feeling leads toward a shift away from one’s current role, whether this shift is dramatic or more subtle.

One expression of this might be the bold step of quitting a job even though a next step is not in place. Another expression of this might be putting your résumé out and getting a feel for other options. Still another expression of this might be going back to school in order to eventual make the jump out of a current role.

Changing Your Perspective on Your Work Context

Other times, the answer is not a shift away from a role or organization, but rather a shift in perspective within that role or organization. This path is about taking a proactive posture toward the stuck feeling. Rather than seeing this as something brought upon you by the organization or others, this is about shifting to take ownership and responsibility for what you have control of as you face this feeling.

Advice for Getting Unstuck

On this point, Robert Steven Kaplan provides thoughtful reflections in his HBR article entitled Reaching Your Potential. Here are some recommendations and reflections drawn from Kaplan’s work for those desiring to move out of this feeling of being “stuck” and “trapped.”

  1. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses
  2. Use this Understanding to Guide Your Career Choices and Goals
  3. Identify Three or Four Tasks that Are Central to Your Work Responsibilities; Make Sure You Excel at These
  4. Show Character and Leadership within Your Role and Organization
  5. Put the Interests of the Company and Your Colleagues ahead of Your Own Interests
  6. Be Willing to Speak Up, Even Voicing Unpopular Views
  7. Don’t Play It Too Safe
  8. Identify Your Dreams
  9. Develop Skills to Realize these Dreams
  10. Demonstrate Courage to Pursue these Dreams
  11. Remember their Will be Bumps Along the Way

What Are Your Next Steps for Getting Unstuck?

Although we could identify other recommendations to add to these, Kaplan provides great insight here for those wanting to move forward from this place of feeling stuck. The key is to move away from a passive posture and on toward an active posture of taking ownership in moving toward your career potential.

What steps have been most helpful for you in getting “unstuck” in the context of your job?

Taking the Next Step — How to Improve Individuals and Organizations

Photo by Justin Irving; new Vikings Stadium in process.

Photo by Justin A. Irving; new Vikings Stadium in process.

One of my favorite quotes from W. Edwards Deming is “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.” What a great reminder. And, this helpful reminder raises a key question: What are your results telling you?

Deming is a key figure in operations management and the pursuit of continuous improvement within operational systems. Management theories like Total Quality Management (TQM) and beyond have been significantly shaped by Deming’s key principles. While Deming’s work is primarily designed for macro operational settings, the lessons are helpful for both organizations and individuals. What are your results telling you organizationally? What are your results telling you individually?

Here are a few highlights from Deming I offer for your consideration

Deming’s 14 Key Principles

Deming is known for 14 Key Principles in his approach to management. I will not review all of these here since they get into specific dimensions of organizational operations. However, here are a few high points of these principles from Deming’s book Out of the Crisis.

  1. Prioritizing the Creation of Constancy of Purpose: “Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.” Improvement at the organizational and individual level does not come by constantly changing focus. Deming’s first point reminds us of the importance of staying the course, remaining focused, and keeping our aims before us. Are you constantly changing your aims, or are you maintaining constancy of purpose and staying focused on what matters most?
  2. Committing to Improve Constantly: “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.” Whether at the organizational or individual level, what problems or challenges exist in the system? If “your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting,” then what problems need to be addressed and are you asking this question regularly?
  3. Taking Action toward Transformation: “Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.” If, as noted above, we have identified the problems holding us back, then it is time for action based on these identified problems. Deming’s final point is a call to action. If at an organizational level, this means focusing everyone’s attention on the problems that need to be addressed and the transformation that is desired. If at an individual level, this translates into prioritizing desired outcomes and shaping our decisions and actions toward this desired transformation.

Deming’s Wheel (P.D.C.A.)

Deming's Wheel

In addition to Deming’s 14 Key Principles, another helpful lesson from Deming’s thinking is Deming’s Wheel. Deming’s Wheel is a four stage process focused on (1) planning, (2) doing, (3) checking, and (4) acting, and helps to simplify core steps along a path of continuous improvement.

  • Plan: Plan an improvement
  • Do: Do the activity planned
  • Check: Check the results of this activity
  • Act: Act on these results in order to make future improvements

Whether at the organizational or individual level, Deming’s Wheel of PlanDoCheckAct provides a memorable model for engaging in continuous improvement. Consider what transformation you desire in your life or in your organization. (1) Make plans for an improvement. (2) Do the planned activity toward this improvement. (3) Check the results of the activity you did. (4) Act/Revise your future planning based on the observed results.

Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting.” What are your results telling you? Perhaps Deming’s approach to continuous improvement will provide you with some practical insights on how to take the next step toward improvement both organizationally and individually. It’s time to Plan – DoCheckAct.