“If you’ve been pigeonholed, how do you get others to see you differently?”

This was a question someone asked me recently, and it’s an important one because being pigeonholed in a particular role or typecast as someone who can only perform one function limits your career.

The good news is it probably means you did such a fabulous job of what you’re doing that people can’t see you flourishing in another role.

In other words, you’re stuck with too much of a good thing. Like my friend who once said she likes frogs and then all she gets for birthday gifts are related to frogs – frog sweaters, frog earrings, frog stationery, and on and on.

How are you being pigeonholed?

Maybe you’re the one with the skillset that regularly gets called on to do the same tasks, like crunching the numbers, handling the negotiations or planning the office holiday party.

Perhaps you’re seen as effective in specific situations, like turning around failing operations or handling difficult people.

Or you could be stuck in a role that you’ve grown out of, like being the accounting expert when you want to shift into a client-facing role.

When people are seeing you through the equivalent of a telephoto camera lens, how can you help them switch to wide-angle and gain a broader appreciation of who you are and what you’re capable of contributing?

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While you can’t control what others think of you, there are things you can do to help change their perceptions

Here are the three steps I’ve found most effective:

  1. Do things significantly differently
  2. Aim for consistency and frequency
  3. Signpost the change

Start by doing things differently… significantly differently

There must be something you’re doing (or not doing) that gives people the perception that they have now. So, step back and take an objective look at your behaviors and actions as you go through the day. Notice what you’re doing and saying that might be giving off the “wrong” impressions.

For example, maybe you’re talking about your expertise in one area without showing any signs of interest or ability in the area you want to grow into. Or you could be using a term that’s pushing you further into your pigeonhole without realizing it. Like emphasizing that you’re the “go to person” on a particular topic.

You can also use the feedback you’re getting to determine what behaviors you need to change.

Whatever those behaviors are, you have to make a significant change. If you just make an incremental change in your approach, no one will notice.

For example, I struggled to speak up in meetings and was perceived as quiet and meek. Being pigeonholed as the one who won’t make waves was not a great reputation for becoming the senior leader I aspired to be. But if I just spoke up once a week, no one noticed. I had to make a 180-degree shift and speak up at every meeting.

Also, I had gained the reputation for gold-plating every assignment. That meant I created a huge presentation book with all the details for every client meeting and kept my team working around the clock. To change this perception, I started doing meetings with just a few pages in the presentation deck. And then even a one-page agenda.

What do you need to do significantly differently to change others’ perceptions of you?

This brings us to the second step.

Aim for consistency and frequency in the new behavior

The impressions people form of you are likely to be based on a series of interactions over time. In my case, I had been sitting quietly in meetings /over-preparing for meetings for years. So you can’t expect to have one or two instances of seeing you do your new thing offset the weight of dozens or even hundreds of impressions of you in your “old way”.

That means you’ll be best off exhibiting the new behavior consistently and often. You’ll be giving people more chances to see the new you.

Give yourself several months of doing this before you judge whether you’ve been successful in changing perceptions. The longer you’ve done things the old way, the longer it takes to generate enough instances and interactions to shift perceptions to your new way.

And the less often someone sees you in action, the longer it will likely take.

Which brings us to the third step.

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Signpost your new behavior for others

Most people won’t be watching closely to see if you’ve changed. They’re likely to be preoccupied with their own situation and challenges and might not notice you at all.

That’s why you have to get their attention. Otherwise, all your hard work won’t pay off.

So once you’ve identified the people who you want to have notice your new ways, find a way to make sure they see or hear you in action.

When I wanted to change my reputation for wasting resources on presentations that never got used, I enlisted the help of a junior team member to give me feedback on my progress. Having her notice was the equivalent of doing a broadcast to all the other juniors in the group.

If that feels too risky, then do what my former colleague Carla Harris did. During a performance review, Carla was told she wasn’t tough enough. So she went on a campaign to use the word “tough” as much as she possibly could, saying things like:

“I know I’m being tough, but we need to go all out to do X”

“We’ve got to be tough and take a stand on this policy”

“I don’t want to sound too tough on the client here, but if they won’t agree then…”

After months of ‘tough, tough, tough”, she overheard her team nervously checking before a meeting, “Did you run the sensitivity analysis? Did you double check the numbers? You know how tough Carla is!”

That’s when she knew she had succeeded in changing perceptions.

But what if the new behavior is beyond your comfort zone?

You’re going to have to do things differently if you want people to perceive you differently. But no one is suggesting that you get a personality transplant or become someone you’re not.

This is about growing and developing into the best version of yourself so you’re able to achieve your aspirations. And while growth often feels uncomfortable, it’s necessary to get out of the cocoon to become a butterfly.

As they say, growth begins outside your comfort zone, both as a person and in your career. So get comfortable being uncomfortable. This will serve you well in life.

When you find you’ve been pigeonholed, it’s time to change perceptions

The longer you leave people with an outdated impression of you, the harder it will be to change their views and gain new opportunities. So there’s no time like the present to get started.

And as you begin, remember these three steps that help you accelerate the change:

  1. Do things significantly differently – that makes it easier for people to notice you’ve grown
  2. Aim for consistency and frequency – the more data points you provide, the sooner people’s views will change
  3. Signpost the change – people are busy and preoccupied, so highlight what you’re doing differently in order to ensure they notice

Which step will most help you change people’s perceptions?

Leave a comment and let me know.