Getting Them Unstuck: How to Help Employees Move Their Careers Forward

By Caitlin Williams

The start of a new year often brings with it new resolutions for advancing one’s career, moving into leadership, or growing professionally. But with the current economic climate warming only slightly for thousands of workers, many employees are using words like stalled, stuck, frustrated, or discouraged to describe their hopes and efforts of moving ahead inside their organizations.


How do we, as career practitioners, help these workers get their mojo back and get their careers moving again? Oftentimes, workers who are stuck need a fresh perspective, the chance to try new actions and the courage to take some new risks.


Try these helpful approaches to clarify and act on the stuck experience:


Have a conversation with them about their experience of feeling “stuck”. Feeling stuck may translate into a sense of running around in circles, burnout. or boredom and disengagement. Identifying or describing how they perceive their situation is the first step leading toward brainstorming with them the best actions they can take to get their momentum back.


For example, you may be working with clients who believe that since there are no new positions being posted inside their organization, it’s likely there are no opportunities. If that is the case, you can work with them to dig deeper into what their organization’s current challenges are, and which areas are likely to grow over the next six months and which are likely to scale back. Help them find the work that will need doing in the future inside their organization and coach them on how to position themselves to take advantage of these future opportunities.


Other areas to identify:

  • If they’re “stuckness” has led to feelings of low self confidence, help them identify current strengths they may not be fully using and suggest they lead with these strengths as they network to uncover new possibilities.

  • If they express a sense of “helplessness” in changing their situation, work with them to create a targeted list of actions they can take to get back some sense of control over their career direction, such as stepping up their visibility and credibility in their community or professional association.


Ask them how long they’ve felt stuck. Did this feeling come up yesterday or several months ago? Some workers we counsel have been content with their work up until recently and have just started to feel the need to make some sort of move, perhaps because of changes in leadership, downsizing, or an overall sense of insecurity.


Putting together a plan to get something accomplished and carrying it out successfully is easier when we’re feeling optimistic, rather than when we’re gripped with anxiety and feel that we must do something different soon because our circumstances have changed. Share information on how to put together a realistic plan to increase optimism.


Pieces of a helpful plan:

  • If they’re in the early stages of feeling stuck, help by normalizing the experience and give them tools to put together a strategy.

  • If they’ve been stuck for a while, suggest they change one thing they’re doing. Rather than put all their eggs in one basket, help them find other people who can support their efforts to move ahead instead of just relying on the same people they’ve gotten support from in the past.

  • If their frustration is longstanding, push them to get feedback from trusted colleagues and mentors. Encourage them to ask these supporters what they might do differently, or how they might be unconsciously sabotaging themselves.


Ask them to describe what, if anything, they’ve done to shift their situation. Some employees may be reluctant networkers, others can’t articulate their strengths. And still others aren’t sure how to best promote themselves within their company.


What can we do to support them?

  • Help them become more savvy about their organization’s culture, how the work gets done and who the people are that act as connectors and influencers inside the company.

  • Encourage them to refine their LinkedIn profile so that it showcases the work they’ve done to move their organization ahead.

  • Brainstorm to identify the working groups, committees, or special initiatives where they can offer their talents and become more visible inside their organization.


Check with them to see where they feel stuck. If they’re stuck in the past it’s likely they‘re still reminiscing about the good old days and waiting for their organization to return to “the way things used to be”. If they are stuck in the present, they may be using precious energy to keep busy – but not necessarily productive. If they’re stuck in the future, they may be so anxious about what the future holds that they are constantly ‘working worried’.


  • Be present and future oriented. Help them get clear on how the work they do contributes to their organization’s current bottom line and its’ future direction.

  • Support them in getting word out to others about their contributions to the organization.

  • Work with them to identify one small risk they are willing to take. Perhaps that risk is introducing themselves to a decision maker in another department. Maybe it means updating their online profile to share news of a great project they just completed.


If we can work with our clients and dig a bit deeper on the reasons behind their feelings of being stuck, we can offer a valuable support to them. As long as employees are vague about being stuck, they can’t take the smartest actions that will get them unstuck and moving forward again. Clarity can lead to much more targeted efforts and a new sense of possibilities.




Caitlin WilliamsCaitlin Williams, Ph.D., is the Associate Co-Editor of the Organizations department for Career Convergence. Caitlin is also president of Successful Working Women, Inc. and an assistant professor at San Jose State University where she teaches in the Master’s in Counselor Education program. Caitlin writes and speaks on discovering and leveraging workplace opportunities. She can be reached at Caitlin@DrCaitlinWilliams.com


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