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Avoiding the Plateau Trap

Avoiding the Plateau Trap


As 2016 comes to a close, our thoughts turn to a new year approaching. My holiday hope for you is that 2016 was one of your best performance years: you hit the majority of your goals and you made new strides. If that’s the case for you, you have to watch out for one of the biggest traps leaders fall into: the plateau trap. If you’ve been a leader for very long, I’m sure you have experienced it.

Hitting a plateau is a perfectly natural phenomenon that occurs in many different forms and in all phases of our lives. But landing on a plateau doesn’t have to mean failure — we can see it as a new challenge. Peaking can be an opportunity to renew ourselves, increase our learning, practice self-acceptance, reaffirm our values, and take a run at an enduring and lasting kind of success.

When we hit plateaus in our work or life, we are encountering resistance or blockage, often coming in the form of conflict, between the stage we are currently in and the stage where we would like to be. This could be a promotion, a pay raise, or some other form of growth we desire. We start looking for paths that will lead us to the next stage. But those paths leading beyond the plateau are typically long, sometimes rocky, with no quick gratification, so instead we start taking paths of least resistance. The smart, high performing leaders challenge themselves and hit resistance head-on.

Here are some suggestions you might consider for managing resistance and avoiding a plateau in 2017:


If you don’t have your intended impact when communicating with someone, try another approach before assuming the other person is flawed.

Great leaders challenge themselves in every way possible. They understand that most of their time is going to be spent in people issues and relationship building. Continuing to challenge yourself on your communication methods will keep your skills sharp. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to communicate with everyone in the same way. Relentlessly search for the method that works best.


In times of conflict, take responsibility for your actions before asking the other person to take responsibility for his or her actions. Resist the urge to attack or blame others.

When situations get tense or emotional, we get caught in fight mode rather than flight mode. Having the emotional control to back out of situations and examine your own responsibility for the conflict is a real strength in a leader.


When others admit mistakes, put the past in the past rather than hold a grudge. Thank the person for taking responsibility and work with him or her to move forward.

High performing leaders control their minds when their minds want them to dwell on negative people and events. Dwelling is an energy drainer and a waste of time. Leaders who can authentically forgive and move on build more trust and get better results.


When your professional relationship with another person is weakened, ask how you’ve contributed to the situation before blaming the other person.

It’s always a little sad when relationships end, and typically both parties had some part to play in it. When you proactively examine your own role in the situation, sometimes you can be the bigger person and save what may be a very valuable relationship down the road. You gain nothing by putting all the blame on the other person.


When a situation gets tense, assert yourself appropriately. Do not avoid conflict to protect the relationship.

Deception can be the path of least resistance when two people have a conflict or disagree. You tell yourself it takes less energy and effort than facing the issues and risking a weakened relationship. The problem is that every time you stuff that emotion down, it will keep building until you will, at some point, have to let it out. It usually isn’t pretty, and it usually stops growth. Catch conflicts in the early stages and resolve them quickly before they escalate. Be diplomatic with the other person, but never lie or deceive.


When people do not meet your expectations, apply pressure to the expectation and make sure the pressure matches the situation.

Separating performance from the person can be very difficult for many leaders. Frankly, it’s just too easy to become a persecutor of the person. You have to stay out of that trap and make sure to hold your standards and expectations high. Challenge the person to meet the standards and expectations. Assume the best of a person and, at the same time, be honest and transparent about the performance — then both the employee and your company will be free to grow.


Happy holidays to you, and here’s to an even better 2017!


Tony Richards is an organizational and executive development expert and CEO of Clear Vision Development Group, a leadership and strategy firm in Columbia, Missouri. He is one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers and thinkers. His firm’s website is Follow Tony on Twitter @tonyrichards4.

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