Feeling pigeonholed at work?

Have you been pigeonholed at work?
Getting pigeonholed in my career is something I work hard to avoid. Unfortunately, it’s a tough condition to shake and my experience is that I have to initiate the shaking-and-moving to stay get out of the hole. This is an important topic for professional workers that don’t want to grow stagnant and that continuously seek new challenges.

Pigeonholed is an expression with various meanings depending on context. For this writing, I’m referring to it as a verb meaning “to assign to a definite place or to definite places in some orderly system”. We use the term to refer to people in the workplace that are locked into a position or a set of responsibilities based on past achievements. Colleagues, management, and others place a label on the person which makes changes in positions or responsibilities difficult.

One of the reasons workers get pigeonholed is they perform well and there is no one else in the organization that knows how to do what they are doing. Often there is not a sense of priority to make sure the person has a back-fill or that that work rotates among people. Organizations get caught up in managing the day-to-day operations of the business and personnel matters are often pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.

Cheryl Dahle captures this thought in an article in Fast Company entitled Escape Your Pigeonhole.  Dahle explains the conundrum as “How do you develop the expertise to be known as the go-to guy or gal for certain projects or jobs without getting so tightly defined that you’re stuck working on the same project (or in the same industry) year after year?”

The remainder of Dahle’s article gives four areas of practical advice that professionals can use to escape and avoid the pigeonhole. A common theme in her recommendations is that we are responsible for moving our own careers towards paths that interest us and that match with our skills and strengths. We can’t rely on our managers, human resources, or anyone else to take us there.

What are you doing about it?
A former colleague once told me that “everyone should be fired or reassigned from their current jobs every three years.” His idea may seem a bit extreme, but his point was that companies benefit more from fresh ideas this way. It keeps workers motivated and challenged and allows them to grow. His thought follows the same mindset as executive leadership programs within some companies where they identify employees with “leadership potential” and change their job function and responsibility every 24 months.  It’s a form of job rotation.

But there is only so much an individual has control over in their workplace. Even if they are doing things to avoid a pigeonhole and to advance to other areas, there is no guarantee they’ll change perceptions of others. Which is exactly why this is a difficult condition to avoid. Just how do you change someone’s perception of you?

I’ve been pigeonholed.
In my personal career I’ve had success and failure getting locked into a position. I know of two times that I have been boxed-in by a pigeonhole. In both cases I had to leave the situation to escape the hole.

The first time was after I entered the organization as a college cooperative student (similar to intern). I stayed with the company after I graduated because they offered me full-time employment. After a couple of years however, it became apparent that management still thought of me as a college co-op student. There really wasn’t any opportunities to continue personal growth. To get out of that pigeonhole I had to leave the company.

The second time was with an employer that no longer exists (due to acquisition). I worked in the IT group as a product manager for many years and sought to advance within IT leadership by moving into management and gaining a broader breadth of responsibility. I felt I was a good fit because I had previously been in roles of analyst, project manager, and network engineer which gave me knowledge of systems, networks, and programming. I knew the business side more than most because of exposure to clients and Sales. But management went through a time of hiring outside people into the positions I was interested in serving. I was told at one point “Just keep doing what you are doing. You are good at it” (AKA – pigeonhole). To escape this pigeonhole I finished a MBA and applied for a position in eCommerce Marketing. It worked and I moved on to new challenges and opportunities for service and learning outside of IT.

Why does it matter?
Getting pigeonholed limits our experiences. It cuts down on the skills we could develop. It reduces the breadth of opportunities which directly influences career choices. This isn’t a power-play to climb the traditional “corporate ladder”. It’s about personal satisfaction with our work and output. It’s about serving others by staying motivated. It’s about learning and growing.

I’d love to hear your experience on this topic. Have you avoided being pigeonholed? Have you escaped a pigeonhole?