Scientists say there are four key stages of progression

Where are YOU in your career? Scientists say there are four key stages of progression – so which one are you in?

  • High-powered professionals go through four emotional stages through careers
  • We move from excitement to anxiety, on to joy, and finally to disillusionment  

A day in the office might feel like an emotional rollercoaster. 

And now scientists have confirmed that your entire career has its ups and downs.

A study led by the University of Bath claims that high-powered professionals go through four distinct emotional stages throughout their careers.

From a recruit excited for new possibilities to a jaded old-hand disillusioned with the system, we all might be able to see ourselves in one of these steps.

So, where are you in your career? Read on to find out.

A day in the office might feel like an emotional rollercoaster. And now scientists have confirmed that your entire career has its ups and downs (stock image)

The four key stages of career progression 

1. Wearing rose-coloured glasses

At the beginning of our careers, our emotions are predominantly of excitement and anticipation. 

2. Being on tenterhooks 

Having previously felt valued and excited, the next stage of our careers is one of anxiety and fear. 

3. Winning the glittering prize

Having finally won the big promotion, our emotions are dominated by feelings of pride and joy.

4. Everything stays the same 

After working so hard to reach the top, our feelings of joy are replaced by disillusionment and disappointment.

In the study, the researchers conducted interviews with 50 lawyers at various stages of their careers.

In law firms, the researchers found that progress to the top position of partner became the organising principle of their whole working life.

Lead author Dr Stefanie Gustafsson says that the intense demands placed on lawyers to progress creates a powerfully emotional attachment to work.

‘Professionals’ careers are suffused with emotions – some of the lawyers we interviewed used phrases like “love” when talking about partnership and felt great pride when being promoted,’ Dr Gustafsson said. 

While the original study focused on lawyers, Dr Gustaffson believes the learnings could apply equally to any top professions. 

‘Such employees go through a rollercoaster of challenging emotions, positive and negative,’ she added. 

1. ‘Wearing rose-coloured glasses’

At the beginning of their careers, researchers found that the participants’ emotions were predominantly of excitement and anticipation. 

The partners in the company acted like mentors to the younger recruits and provided them with lots of positive encouragement. 

One partner told the researchers: ‘I’m very keen that we look after our star people, and part of that is making sure that they know that they are star people.’

The goal of becoming a partner is cemented as vitally important from the get-go, and new recruits are taught to value hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. 

The researchers also note that people at this stage begin to ‘write out’ their family or social life to prioritise work. 

They even noted that colleagues and supervisors provided the emotional support ‘usually afforded by spouses and family members’. 

In the TV show Suits, a young Mike Ross starts his career ‘wearing rose-coloured glasses’, a period dominated by emotions of excitement and anticipation 

READ MORE: Scientists claim they’ve found the most stressful time of the day… down to the minute 

2. ‘Being on tenterhooks’

Having previously felt valued and excited, the next stage of our careers is one of anxiety and fear. 

At this stage, the researchers found that peoples’ emotions become overwhelmingly negative. 

As the fight for promotion becomes more intense, partners that had once been mentors and role models now become gatekeepers obstructing promotion. 

Researchers found that, because lawyers are selected for partnership by a vote of existing partners, the resulting approval process was gruelling and stressful. 

Rounds after rounds of selection processes compounded the stress of needing to constantly be on best behaviour around senior colleagues. 

One lawyer told the researchers: ‘You felt like you were on tenterhooks for that whole time because you had different stages that you needed to deal with and you felt that you had to be on your best behaviour.

‘I did feel that for a long period of that year, I couldn’t relax properly.’

If the selection process was a failure, some of the study’s respondents even reported feeling shame and the need to quit the firm entirely.  

After the initial excitement, the second stage is one of anxiety and fear as the fight for promotions becomes more intense (stock image)

3. ‘Winning the glittering prize’

Sometimes, however, all that stress and hard work pays off and we can make it to the third stage of our emotional careers. 

Having finally won the big promotion our emotions are dominated by feelings of pride and joy. 

A feeling of ‘having finally made it’ after all the fear of the previous stage creates a very strong emotional reaction. 

The researchers found that, at this stage, the lawyers’ emotional connection to the company deepened profoundly.

The lawyers in the study expressed a personal connection to the company they work for, with one saying: ‘I love, I really genuinely love the partnership’.

At this stage we feel more connected to the senior members of the team, finally seeing them as peers rather than gatekeepers.

Yet it is also at this stage when the lawyers let family and friends back into their lives after excluding them in the years leading up to the partnership role.  

After the intense stress of stage two, stage three comes as we reach the ‘glittering prize’ of the big promotion we have been working towards (stock image)

Becoming a partner, like Harvey Specter in Suits, is the highlight of a lawyer’s career and is associated with intense feelings of joy, pride, and belonging 

READ MORE: Lawyers could have electronic chips implanted in their BRAINS to enable them to scan through documents in a fraction of the time

4. ‘Everything stays the same’

However, all the positive emotions of the third stage can’t last forever.

Soon, the researchers found that our feelings of joy are replaced by disillusionment and disappointment. 

After working so hard to reach the top spot, many of the lawyers who spoke to the researchers said they found little changed after their promotion.

‘It’s like wading through treacle to get to the promised land and finding that in the promised land there is just more treacle,’ one partner said.

‘I was expecting a huge change but actually when you get there, it’s much of a muchness and I’m paid more money, but nothing has changed.’

Finally, the lawyers turned backwards to focus on their own teams of junior lawyers, becoming mentors to the next generation and starting the cycle again. 

Dr Gustafsson says that these findings should be used to help support the emotional needs of those working in high-pressure occupations.

She concluded: ‘HR and line managers should consider and understand, particularly to develop coping skills and provide support in cultures where success is celebrated but failure is frequently stigmatised.’

Ultimately those working in highly demanding jobs often feeling disillusioned after reaching their goal as the work life stays largely the same (stock image)

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