It’s easy to put people in a box. To pigeon-hole them, put them in a category, stick a mental label on or use a shorthand description. Like “he’s good at math” or “she’s emotional” or “he’s a liberal”.

In fact, it’s natural. We humans are wired to make quick judgments about others. While it was essential for cavemen to know asap whether or not something was going to eat them for dinner, it’s not so helpful now.

But when you put people in a box, it can stifle their development and hurt their confidence. Then, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and ultimately limit the success of the team around you.

It’s easy to fall into the trap

Recently, my husband and daughter were coaching a junior basketball game. After the game, our daughter pointed out that my husband was only pushing two of the five players to bring the ball up the court.

She said, “Anna and Rose can also bring the ball up the court and need to develop those skills. But if we don’t give them a chance, they’ll get the message that they can’t do it.”

They both agreed that while they could try to win this one game with this strategy, sending that kind of message wouldn't help their players develop and be successful down the line. “Longer term, we’re going to need our players to be versatile if we want the strongest possible team.”

They resolved to push Anna and Rose to develop the skills and confidence to be ball handlers too.

My husband is a highly experienced coach and someone I regard as open-minded and fair. If even he could fall into the trap of putting Anna and Rose in a box (“they’re shooters, not ball handlers”), then it truly could happen to anyone.

The self-fulfilling prophecy

It starts with the power of impressions.

What happens is the coach – or boss – sees you doing certain things well or badly and gets an impression of you, often without noticing the impression is even forming. And because it’s much harder to unlearn something than to learn it, once an impression is formed it’s hard to get rid of.

Then, when you get treated that way long enough, you start to get that impression of yourself too. You stop practicing or doing that thing. And soon, the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s why negative self-talk is so destructive – the more you say to yourself, “I’m no good at X”, the more it becomes ingrained. And that voice in your head is like gum on your shoe – hard to get rid of. So, you end up being no good at X and, paradoxically, almost pleased to be right about it!

How to stop limiting your team’s potential

When you’re the boss, you want to create the strongest team so you can collectively produce the best result. Or as my friend Chester Elton’s book title says, The Best Team Wins.

While specialization seems attractive in the short term, in the longer term, it’s a losing strategy. At best, you’ll end up with a bunch of role players who can’t learn, adapt or grow.

Worse, you risk people becoming unhappy and leaving because they don’t see potential for a better situation. And worst of all, they might stay and “quit in place”, causing all sorts of management problems.

In an environment where things are changing all the time, you need people who are nimble, flexible, and able to retool quickly.

So, challenge yourself to stop (unintentionally) limiting your team’s potential by taking these five steps.

Observe the behavior

Take a hard look at the behaviors in your team – both theirs and your own.

To what extent are you unintentionally behaving in ways that condition your people to think, “I can’t do X”, “I’m only good at Y”, or worst of all, “that’s not my job”? To what extent are your people already suffering from the self-fulfilling prophecy that stunts their growth, morale and performance?

When you find such behaviors, don’t let it get you down – even the best of us fall into the trap. Remember that everyone is doing their best, including you. And now is a great time to create new habits and help your team do the same.

Keep an open mind

Instead of rushing to judgement and having your team members lined up in neat little boxes, see if you can keep an open mind just a little bit longer.

Use that time to explore what each team member is interested in and capable of. Get to know who they are, their special strengths, their best working environments, and what motivates them.

Start to see the possibilities for how that maps to the mission of your unit, and how they can contribute in the most energizing way.

Suspend judgment

Take a look at the assumptions you’re currently making about your team members and ask yourself, “what if I’m wrong?”

Challenge yourself to identify the real evidence you have versus the impressions you’ve formed, including what others have told you. See whether there are areas where it makes sense to explore further.

Become fascinated to see where that person’s full package of strengths lie. What are the possibilities? How could that help the team and your overall performance?

Give people a chance

Give them opportunities to try different roles or tasks, and support them while they’re developing those new muscles. Unleash their talent and help them fulfill their potential.

They may surprise you, and you might appreciate it sooner than you think. You’ll almost certainly gain loyalty and appreciation, which usually leads to people going the extra mile.

Don’t go overboard

While you’re doing all of this, realize that it’s not about asking people to go against their grain or do the impossible. In fact, some people might love having a specific role and want to keep doing it.

It is about challenging assumptions – yours and theirs – about what’s possible. So, you don’t need to make a 180-degree change in how you lead and manage. You’re just giving yourself permission to get out of your own straightjacket as a boss and becoming comfortable with some mental shifts in how to lead your team.

What to do if you’ve been put “in a box”

And if you’re a team member who has been pigeon-holed, here are five strategies you can pursue.

Start with your sphere of control

I’ve found it’s always best to sort my own issues before asking others to change. When I’ve been “put in a little box”, I start by asking myself what I’ve allowed to happen.

Just because my boss thinks of me as a great number cruncher who’s not good with clients doesn’t mean I have to start believing it myself. I don’t have to allow the self-fulfilling prophecy to come true.

Once you realize what’s in your sphere of control, you can shift your own behavior and mindset. And that’s a great start.

Ask for the opportunity

Once you’ve sorted out your own mental baggage, the next step is to ask for the opportunity to practice and show what you can do in these new areas.

When you make the ask, put it in terms of “What’s in it for You” (WIIFY), where the “you” is your boss or whoever you’re asking. Explain how it’s good for the business and in the best interests of your boss to give you a chance.

Create your own opportunity

Since you can’t count on others to give you a chance, at least not right away, it’s a good idea to take some initiative to create opportunities for yourself.

These are likely to be outside the immediate scope of your current projects, but it’s worthwhile to flex those muscles and have a chance to practice your new craft. Maybe it’s in a volunteer organization, maybe it’s a special client project.

Keep a lookout for opportunities to show you can operate outside of the pigeon-hole, and ideally have your boss see you in action while you’re at it.

Help someone else

Like my daughter in the basketball example, you could help a team member who’s been put into too small a box by pointing this out to your boss. Choose your words carefully, of course – it’s all about the way you do and say it. But this could clue your boss in to the concept more broadly and benefit everyone on the team, including you.

Find another team

If all else fails and you’re unable to get people to see what you’re capable of where you are, the last resort is to find another team to join. Or to form a team of your own. But don’t do this lightly. Always do your homework before making any big move!

Bring out the best in everyone

Whether you’re limiting your team’s potential or you’re the one who has been pigeon-holed, there are ways to change the situation.

The first step is awareness, and the rest is up to you.

Either way, it’s totally worth it to bring out the best in everyone. After all, the world needs us all to be at our best so we can be better, do more, and make the difference we’re meant to make.

Now, I’d love to hear from you.

What are the things you do to bring out your team members’ potential?

Leave a comment and let me know.