The Science of Pigeonholing

Labels are important.  Without them life would be unmanageable- a barrage of specific, personal experiences with little opportunity for reflection or sharing.   But when it comes to growth, labels can be limiting since they come with sets of requirements that create expectations and influence action.

If you identify yourself as a vegetarian, for example, people will expect you, and you will expect yourself, to abstain from eating meat. If you label yourself as an environmentalist you will be expected to make certain choices and engage in activities that are aligned. As long as your desires and choices fit, all is well. But what happens when you act, think, or behave in ways that conflict with your labels?   You may feel constrained, forcing you to inhibit your desires in order to remain in alignment, or conversely, forced to reevaluate your core beliefs and identity. Over time our labels can become increasingly powerful, serving as drivers of our decision making and affecting the opportunities to which we are exposed.

In the workplace labels can be especially powerful. Even though individuals bring a wealth of experience, skills, and abilities to any position or role, they are often viewed through a narrow band of features and competencies most closely associated with their labels. They may only be invited to certain meetings or given assignments associated with these narrow bands, even though their talents and competences extend well beyond. In this way, our titles and labels begin to define us and how others view and respond to us, resulting in pigeonholing which in turn can feel constraining and tight, contributing to feeling stuck and underutilized.

While others tend to reinforce this narrowing of identity, we are largely responsible for doing it to ourselves. Many of us are eager to assume new roles and titles, wanting to be viewed as competent and successful, giving our employers exactly what they want. We may, especially in the beginning, stick with expected skills and activities, hesitant to offer insights or experiences outside the narrow band of expectations. Although this pattern may be more pronounced in lower level roles that are more defined and constrained, we can see it across all levels and domains.

I continue to see this pattern play out in my own career working at a major research university. Although I came to my first administrative role with a PhD and experience as an assistant professor, I was immediately treated like a “typical” staff member. Faculty and university leaders assumed that I didn’t understand research and were shocked when I revealed otherwise. When I tried to explain my academic background, they would quickly dismiss my competencies since they didn’t fit their expectations for my role. Time and time again as my specific titles changed, my perceived identity became closely associated with my new area of focus. When I was in charge of school partnerships, people thought of me as an education person; when I did experiential learning, I was only invited to meetings that involved service or student engagement. And each time I transitioned into a new role I felt the space shrinking around me.

Luckily, because of my background I knew what was happening and was able to resist, stretching, seeding new projects, and refusing to be constrained or pigeonholed. But most of us lack the awareness or specialized skillset, and inadvertently feed into this pattern. Once initial perceptions and expectations become set, our systems tend to reinforce these labels, making them harder to change and modify. This tendency can be so strong that many are willing to completely change jobs or lives in order to acquire new labels that will hopefully allow for more growth and freedom. But the tendency to define ourselves and others in narrow terms will follow us wherever we go.

The good news is that we can change these patterns, both for ourselves and those who view us. This tendency to label, and to do so restrictively, is only a default setting that allows us to make some assumptions and best guesses. We know that secretaries at minimum have administrative skills and expertise, so we can assume that they will be helpful with certain types of tasks. We also know that counselors tend to have good interpersonal skills and are trained to help people with problems, so we might seek them out if we are experiencing a personal crisis. But nowhere does it state that these are the only skills that people possess, or that we can only draw on specific activities or expectations associated with these narrow bands of features.

Chances are that every person with whom you meet or interact possesses skills, experiences, and talents well beyond their traditional duties or responsibilities. Virtually no label fully defines a person’s skill-set or what they have to offer or draw upon in any given situation. At any time we can surprise ourselves and others by bringing forward new skills and ideas, changing the ways that we are perceived and treated by those around us. Clearly, it is only through broadening expectations, asserting and inserting our gifts and talents that we can stretch the space around labels and give ourselves more room to move.

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