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People Over Process
On Avoiding Being Pigeonholed
by Sean Landis
March 29, 2004
Is your career in a rut? Are you unhappy? Maybe you've been pigeonholed. In this article I share some personal experiences and the lessons they taught me. Hopefully you can learn from it too.


This may seem like a strange topic for a technical blog, but given the challenging economic times in our industry, any edge can be useful.

One definition of a pigeonhole according to is:

2. A specific, often oversimplified category.

"Being pigeonholed" is:

2. To classify mentally; categorize.

3. To put aside and ignore; shelve.

To mentally classify or categorize someone into an oversimplifed category often leads to them being put aside or shelved. There is a positive side to the act of categorizing employees, but what I'm talking about are the times when carelessly classifying individuals does harm to them or to their organizations. It is important to understand the difference.

Consider an imaginary project with a set of preliminary requirements, an agressive target date, and a four person team to implement it. An effective way to meet the project goals would be to match the skill sets of the team members to the tasks that will fulfill the requirements. If this is an important project with tight constraints, then limiting the scope of each individual's work to what they've proven to be good at is more likely to lead to success. This is good management, not pigeonholing.

Pigeonholing, on the other hand, has to do with missing opportunities because of careless categorization of individuals when categorization is unnecessary. Here's a personal example. My previous job was with a research organization where I has an excellent record. My focus for nearly three years had been on leveraging a technology (Jini) in mobile applications. We had trouble gaining traction with product teams. Eventually, when another round of layoffs occurred, I was released. The reasons: money and lack of project relevence. Of course project relevence would have negated the money issue!

Before going further, I want to declare that this isn't a bitch session. What happened to me has happened to a lot of my colleagues and so it is a good case study. Plus I know the facts. Unfortunately.

Back to my pigeonholing example. The organization I was in did research planning on an annual basis with quarterly adjustment reviews. Looking back in time from my release date, two reviews before, I suggested to my manager I move away from Jini-related projects. I suggested I join another project that had interest from product teams and that could use some help. No, my manager said, I should stay focused on what I was doing. Next review, basically the same discussion, only I was more assertive because I was getting nervous. Radar had indicated a possible attack.

Sure enough, the axe did fall. My manager's manager, the lab director, informed me that money and the fact that I was working on projects that were no longer important, were the two reasons for my dismissal. In fairness, the situation was slightly more complicated. I telecommuted and so there was some cost overhead, and my face was not being seen every day. Also, my salary had grown large. Still, I think if I had been working on an important project, the organization would have tolerated these things willingly.

I surprised my director when I informed him that the projects I was working on were not of my choosing. He quickly regained composure. He was about to be promoted out of the organization and anyway, the decision had already been made.

Later, I confronted my manager, who is a good friend of mine, and told him that I was let go because the projects he insisted I work on were irrelevent. His response: "I know you enjoy Jini and I was looking for ways to allow you to keep doing it."

My case is an example where a manager pigeonholed me because he wanted me to be happy. That's pretty innocent, but I got the sense that, in those threatening times, he felt everyone would be better off if the were maximizing their potential by working on what they were good at. Also a seemingly logical approach. But could it have been different? Could I have avoided losing my job?


Lack of awareness seems to have been the first problem. In my example, niether I nor my manager were aware of our director's sentiments regarding the work I was doing. I was not aware of the motives of my manager in maintaining my project status quo. For me, this was compounded by telecommuting - I missed out on those day-to-day ques that present themselves in the office environment.

In a previous job, a friend and I used to joke about a tendency of the engineers to "shut up, keep their heads down, and work." Picture an osterich with its head in the ground. Yes, keeping your head up while you are trying to get your job done can induce worry about things you can't control, but it can also give you an awareness of the big picture and how you fit into it. Steven Covey talks about not worrying about changing things outside your sphere of influence. Of course you must know what's going on to know what you can and can't influence. So, instead of simply avoiding the stress and frustration by ignoring the company waves as they wash past, diligently watch them for important signs. All the while, be discerning about the edge of your sphere of influence and manage your emotions accordingly.

To determine if you are being pigeonholed, you need to have sufficient awareness of the organizational workings to see the potential opportunities that are passing in front of you. Are you being skipped over for a project that you feel you should be a part of? Could the reason be because someone has a narrow view of your abilities, possibly based on your past performance? Are the bounds of your work so constrained as to limit the potential of the outcome? Is there room for your work to be expanded to meet broader organizational or customer goals? The effect of pigeonholing is to place unjustified limits around someone - their work, the career, their growth, etc.


Awareness requires communication. For my part, I should have pushed back to discover my manager's motives. Our director should have been more clear about his concerns and expectations. My manager should have pushed our director harder. Communication is more than simply talking. Sometimes things aren't said because things aren't asked.

It's each employee's responsibility to pursue a common understanding of the situation. Just because the other one isn't pursuing it, doesn't mean you or I shouldn't. Sometimes it's in our best interest to force the issue. Why was I passed over for that project? Is what I'm working on in best interest of both me and my organization? How does management percieve my work? Does my manager know what my interests and career goals are? Are they in concert with my organizational goals? Answering some of these questions might require communicative confrontation. I've met very few managers who entertain these sorts questions at night before they go to bed.

Managing Risk

Being pigeonholed means boundaries have been put up around you. These boundaries are motivated by perception and, as we all know, perceptions can be wrong, but they're often all that matters. The motivations for placing boundaries, are often either laziness or fear.

It's much less work to manage someone if you have an oversimplified model of them. It's hard work to really quantify someone's abilities, much less their potential. It's hard work to create opportunities for others to grow while avoiding taking careless organizational risks. It's much easier to stick to what's easy and safe.

Fear can build boundaries to avoid failure. By keeping an employee inside boundaries that are defined by past performance, the manager can avoid taking blame for a failure and take credit for success. Some organizations promote this behavior by punishing risk-taking.

There are two kinds of risk and two outcomes of risk taking: managed and unmanaged risk, and success or failure. Either type of risk can have either result, but in the former case, success is a likely outcome, whereas it's just luck in the second case.

If you find your self in a risk-averse organization then you'd better learn to get comfortable with the little box you've been assigned. Otherwise your alternatives are to find a new organization, or change the one you're in (which may result in a change for you anyway). My impression is that organizations that are good at managing risk usually don't pigeonhole people, and those that are risk-averse usually do.

I also believe that the majority of organizations are somewhere in the middle: They try to manage risk when they think of it, and they tend to avoid it if it looks dangerous. In that case, it is our responsibility to be proactive for our own cause. I must sell my desire to break out of my pigeonhole within a framework of managed risk. For my part, what are the career risks? To successfully sell my break out, I must do it within constraints of organizational risk: "If you let me try to learn X will working on this new project, you can see that even if I take twice as long as planned, I'm still not on the critical path." Or, "If we try to rearchitect in this fashion, even if we don't achieve our new performance goals, we can still roll back to the old architecture and only lose two weeks of development time. If the new architecture meets our new performance goals, we will get that big contract." It's all about risk and reward. What do we lose if we fail, what do we get if we succeed, and is it a good tradeoff? It's common sense, but I'm amazed how little of it actually is practiced.

Managing Personal Growth

Very little personal growth can happen in a pigeonhole and no one cares about my personal growth more than I do. So it's up to me, if I want to break out, to make it happen. The ingredients of personal growth have all been discussed. I have to be aware of how I want to grow and aware of how that growth fits into my organization's needs/wants. I have to communicate my desire for personal growth to the right people and in the right way. And I have to motivate actions that will foster this growth in such a way as to manage risk to myself and my organization.

Managing personal growth is not something to do only when you get bored, or during annual reviews. It's an on-going process that must continually re-evaluate the organizational and professional backdrops for support or resistence indicators. Reactionary career management is likely to put you into a place you don't want to be, or cause you to miss an opportunity because you aren't prepared to make a quick decision.


In our profession, most of us have good imaginations. Unfortunately, some of us have lost use of it. Like a muscle that is not exercised, imagination can atrophy. I think it is a good idea to constantly play "what-if" games with my career, my family, my project, my organization, and my company. I can't make anyone else use their imagination, but I can paint an imaginative visual image for them that might, just might, spark their imagination.

Lack of imagination can put you into a pigeonhole in the first place. If you don't define yourself someone else will do it for you. If you keep taking on the same role, or working with the same technology, you are only reinforcing the limitations of your pigeonhole.

In my 15 year career, most of my best career moves were opportunities that I made for myself. I had to become aware of the potential. I had to communicate it, and I had to show the benefit vs. the risk. I had to imagine what doors would open for me if I exploited a new opportunity. Because I was actively managing my personal growth, I knew the opportunity was in line with my career goals and I was able capitalize on the potential.


Recently I experienced the humiliation of being layed off. Now, several months later, I've been able to reflect on the lessons of the experience and share them.

I've seen so many colleagues *always* take the head-in-the-sand or take-one-for-the-company approach to their careers. There may be a time and place for this and, under the right conditions, I suppose you could have a long and safe career. The question is, "are you happy?" The bulk of our waking hours are spent working. It seems a pity not to enjoy that time.

Likewise, many young engineers can get pigeonholed right out of school and, before they know it, 5 years have gone by and they've been labeled "The Windows Guru." Just like actors, we can get stuck playing the same role over and over again.

In economic downturns such as we are now in, even wiley veterans can be found putting their head down and running as hard as they can. Running hard is good, but keep your head up so you don't hit that wall ahead of you.

If you think you are being pigeonholed, and you are not happy, maybe you should increase your awareness, work on communicating your desires in a way that shows benefit to both you and your employer, and for goodness sake, always use your imagination.

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About the Blogger

Sean Landis is a technologist and programmer interested in, among other things, mobile and distributed sytems, location-based services, and skiing.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2004 Sean Landis. All rights reserved.

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