What’s it mean to be pigeonholed?

“Pigeonholed” is a weird term, so here’s what it means to me.

Maybe you have several years of experience and have gotten pretty good at your job. You’re paid pretty well, but have run out of places to go. There are no logical promotions, no new challenges to tackle, just more of the same old routine.

Your salary has been flat for the past few years because it’s never a great time to ask for a raise, and you feel like you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over. You might hear yourself described as “the Receivables person” or “the tester” or some other term with a single focus.

You’re stuck on your career path, possibly boxed in by your own success, and there’s no obvious next step for you.

You may have been pigeonholed.

Here are two ways to escape your dead-end job and avoid being pigeonholed

What can you do to avoid being pigeonholed and continue making progress in terms of responsibility and pay?

Listen

There are the things you were hired to do, and then there’s a lot of other valuable stuff that isn’t necessarily your job. If you only focus on the things you were hired to do—even if you’re very good at those things—you run the risk of being pigeonholed.

There’s always other valuable work to be done in a business. This is true whether you’re an experienced software developer or a marketing intern.

Listen carefully for signs that there are other opportunities to do valuable work and then capitalize on those opportunities.

Here’s what to listen for:

  • “I just didn’t have time to get to it this week.”
  • “Someone should look into that.”
  • “Why does this keep happening?”

Those are all opportunities for you to branch out beyond your regular tasks and find valuable new ways to contribute. Think of them as side quests at your job—what are the optional things you can do that will give you new experience and help you stand out?

Ask

Not hearing those kinds of statements floating around your office? Time to go on the offensive!

Ask your manager and colleagues what they’re struggling with. Here’s the “ask” version of the three things I suggested you listen for above:

  • Ask your manager “Is there anything you’re struggling to get done that I can help out with? I want to learn more about how our business operates and help where I can.”
  • On your next team call or standup, you can ask “Are there any long-running things we’ve had on the back burner for a while? Anything I can help us finish?”
  • Ask a couple of peers “Is there anything you keep bumping into that’s slowing you down or making your job harder? Tell me about it so I can look into it and see if it’s affecting other people on our team.”

Regularly listen and ask for new ways to branch out

One big reason you can get pigeonholed is that you get comfortable doing what you’re good at. To avoid being pigeonholed, you’re going to have to step out of your comfort zone and do new things.

The more new things you try, the more often you’ll add another skill to your repertoire, and the more likely you’ll be to find promotion opportunities or even new career opportunities to help you get un-stuck.