What to do When You’ve Been Pigeonholed at Work

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Spread your wings.

You’re great at your job. So good, in fact, that your boss tells you often that you’re irreplaceable. It’s a compliment, for sure – but it comes with a big old warning sign: danger, pigeonhole ahead.

Unfortunately for anyone who likes to excel at work, pigeonholing, also known as the competency curse, is a trap that’s all too easy to fall into. We get caught up meeting our KPIs and forget that to take the next step, we need to develop new skills, too.

“A critical mistake people make is failing to develop capabilities that will allow them to advance beyond their current role or profession,” says people-management specialist Karen Gately. “While building specialist expertise is likely to serve most people well in their careers, it’s just as important to develop interpersonal, engagement and leadership skills.”

This predicament is one hell of a catch-22 – you’re so busy getting your job done that you don’t have time to demonstrate a full suite of talents, and your boss, appreciative of the work that only you can do, starts to see you as a one-trick, ah, pigeon.

Your mission is to strategically overhaul your image. “One of the most important things you can do to shift the perceptions anyone has of you is to give them reason to believe,” says Karen. “Look for opportunities to demonstrate your potential and the depth of your willingness to learn. Focus on building a reputation for being someone who is willing to give things a go, open-minded to learning, and dedicated to not only your own success, but that of the team.”

In practical terms, that could mean taking the initiative to enrol in an online course and up-skill in your own time, or offering to help out on another team’s project. You could also look out for opportunities to learn another role, so you can act as back-up when people are on leave. This, in turn, will help you understand the realities of the positions you have your eye on and give you valuable insight into the best next step for you.

Finding a mentor should also be on your radar, says Karen. “Look for someone who has travelled the road you want to go down. Don’t be afraid to ask them for time, and be clear about how you believe they can help you grow your career.”

All this advice, however, comes with a pretty big caveat – take care not to drop the ball in your current role or your image makeover could backfire, big time. “Your employer is entirely less likely to support you to grow and evolve in your career if they’re unable to rely on you,” explains Karen. “While most will appreciate the challenges inherent in working in a role you now find boring, the reality is, the organisation still needs you to deliver.”

Having an honest chat with your boss is a smart move. Let them know you’re keen to expand your skillset and that you see your career moving beyond your current role. And even if it gives you a sense of pride to be the only one who knows how to use that software or interpret that data, don’t be too protective of sharing your specialist knowledge with others. After all, being irreplaceable will only clip your wings.

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