If you’ve been attempting to advance your career for a while without success, you may be a victim of “pigeonholing.” Put simply, being pigeonholed at work means that people have developed such a strong image of you in your current position, they can’t even imagine you doing anything else. Perhaps they have come to rely on you too deeply, or maybe you’re just too darn good at what you do. Whatever the reason, the people around you have rigidly categorized you in a certain way, and that has limited your opportunities for career growth.
Obviously, it’s no fun to be pigeonholed at work. If you find yourself in such a position, career advancement may require a transition to another organization. (If you need help with your job search, check this out.)
However, in the spirit of being proactive, it’s worthwhile exploring strategies to avoid being pigeonholed in the first place. Here’s what you can do to prevent this problem.
Strategies to Avoid Being Pigeonholed at Work
Discuss Career Ambitions Early & Often
The more people hear you discussing your future career goals, the more comfortable they will get with the idea. If your leaders understand from the beginning that you’re a driven professional with aspirations that go beyond your current role, they will be better positioned to support your development. Alternatively, if your leaders believe you’re totally content where you are and have no desire to explore advancement opportunities, their image of you will become set.
Of course, there is a delicate line to walk here. You don’t want to be so focused on the future that you appear unhappy in the present. You must balance two goals: express your future ambition while also demonstrating your total commitment to the current position.
Demonstrate the Ability to Flex
You are more likely to be pigeonholed at work if your interests and skills appear limited. When you show people that you have the ability and desire to flex based on the needs of the team and organization, they begin to see you as someone who can be moved around easily. Your skills can be applied in different ways, and you’re willing to stretch outside of normal job boundaries to help everyone be more successful. Not only does this position you as a strong team player, it also shows others that you are capable of more than just the role you’re currently in. Therefore, it’s not such a challenge to imagine you inhabiting other roles in the future.
Always Keep Learning
One of the most important aspects of career advancement is aptitude—your willingness, interest, and ability to learn. To earn a promotion, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert at all the required job elements, but you have to have proven that you’re able to quickly acquire new skills. And the only way to do that is through demonstration.
Volunteer to take on stretch assignments that push you to learn new things. Show that you’re not afraid to challenge yourself, even at the risk of failing. Ask questions and offer to assist people who have skills you’d like to develop. The more you can show your curiosity and capability, the better.
Develop Relationships Across the Enterprise
Ultimately, advancement within an organization relies on relationships. People must have faith in your abilities based on their past experience with you. The more people who know, like, and trust you, the greater your chances of earning a promotion.
If people don’t know you well, and they only see you confined in the existing role you’re in, it’s easy to pigeonhole you. They have no reason to see you as the three-dimensional, complex, multiskilled professional that you are. They can create an image of you that aligns solely with the role you’re in and nothing more.
However, when you take the time to create real relationships with people throughout your organization, they get to know you as an individual. They see your multifaceted layers. If and when opportunities arise, they may automatically think of you. Alternatively, should you find an opportunity of interest, you can tap your network to help open doors, which they will happily do if the relationship is strong enough. Personal connection is probably the most powerful and reliable way to avoid being pigeonholed at work.
If there’s one overarching lesson here it’s this: If you want to be seen as someone who is capable of growth within your organization, you can’t get too comfortable. You must always be stretching yourself in visible ways. You can’t simply focus on doing your current job to the best of your ability. YES, that’s still part of it. But you also need to be thinking about, talking about, and working toward the future. With the steps described here, you can avoid being pigeonholed at work!