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Being pigeonholed at work? Here’s how to break out
Getting ahead2.5 min read

Being pigeonholed at work? Here’s how to break out

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Ever feel like you’ve been pushed into a rut at work?

Sometimes, being good at specific jobs or having a certain skill set can have a downside – you become stuck, with no real path to progress.

It’s great to be recognised for what you’re good at but being pigeonholed can limit your career development.

Here’s what to watch out for, and what you can do to break out of your box and take a step forward in your career. 

Why does pigeonholing happen?

Often, being pigeonholed is the outcome of your success, says career coach Lucy Allen. “You've done a job so well and mastered a specific skillset that your day is taken up with full responsibility for that, leaving little room for growth outside of it.”

It can also be the result of not having a clear vision for your career, or not sharing this with others. Allen says people who proudly claim their skillset, areas of interest and ambitions are most likely to be thought of for new opportunities. People who don’t are often assigned by default to where they’re needed most.

Allen says if you’re noticing people around you being given opportunities for new projects or growth but feel you're not given the same consideration, there’s a chance you’re being pigeonholed. The good thing is, there’s plenty you can do about it.

How can it limit my career?

It can be tempting to grin and bear it, but it’s best to start turning your career in the direction you want as soon as possible – even if you tackle it slowly. Letting it slide can stunt the growth and development of your skillset, which then impacts opportunities to progress, Allen says.

“Sticking it out means only building up a group of core strengths at the expense of stretching yourself and developing new skills,” she says.

“Worse, if these core strengths are limited in terms of how much they can be developed – for example, being super quick at data entry or working on a superseded technology – it will also be harder to progress into new roles.”

Being pigeonholed can also limit the growth of your network if you find that you’re continuing to work with the same group of people. Plus, it can leave you feeling resentful of your workplace and manager which will flow into your work satisfaction and output, Allen says.

How to break out of your pigeonhole

Taking charge of your career direction is something that needs to come from you. After all, if you’re filling an important role for your employer, they might not realise you’re dissatisfied. However, there are ways to enlist the help you need.

Here are Allen’s top tips for breaking free from your rut:

  • Make a plan 
    Schedule a time and sit down with your manager to communicate your ambitions, skillset and career vision, and work out a plan with them to seek out new opportunities.
     
  • Reach beyond your role 
    Negotiate 'stretch' opportunities while maintaining your current role and responsibilities. If your manager is on the fence, spell out the value of these new opportunities to your position and the team. For example, would they strengthen relationships, build a greater understanding of all the business departments, or give you an improved awareness of team capabilities?
     
  • Keep an eye out 
    Proactively search for relevant new opportunities that you might be able to support or be part of. Listen to what's being said in the business about where a team may be short staffed or lacking capabilities and put your hand up to help.
     
  • Sharpen your skills
    Take the opportunity to upskill outside of work through additional training, study or placement opportunities.
     
  • Start your own project 
    Don’t wait for an opportunity – consider creating your own side hustle in your desired field, industry or passion to keep your skills going in the right direction.
     
  • Get to know people 
    Network within your organisation and industry to connect with others in roles that you aspire to be in. Take the time to understand what their position entails, what transferrable skills you might have and how they've secured those responsibilities.

When it comes to steering your career, staying proactive is key. Finding a clearer picture of what you want and then thinking about how to get there can help you break down barriers like pigeonholing. That way, you can make that step into whatever you’re aiming for next.

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