How to get unpigeon-holed…the sequel

Posted February 23, 2016 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

We’ve all got a ‘brand’. If I were to walk into any of your organizations and ask your peers, direct reports or boss to describe you to me, undoubtedly I’d get some varying perspectives but there would also be some common ground. In a few minutes, I would know what your best traits and qualities were and what your most annoying, irritating or least helpful ones were as well. And chances are, unless you do something extremely proactive, those annoying, irritating traits are going to remain a part of your leadership story until you take one radical step to change it. And that radical step isn’t about changing your behaviour.

Most of my time coaching is spent working with people on their behaviours. Behaviours, quite simply put are what you walk around ‘saying’ and ‘doing’. Your body language, the actions you take and the words you choose to use are key elements of your behaviour that people will use to evaluate, judge, assume intention and often like or dislike you as a result.

Most of the people I work with get very little constructive feedback on their behaviours. Mostly I think this is because a) talking to people about their behaviours can be uncomfortable, b) we’ve never really been taught how to give behavioural feedback (unless you took a psych course or two in uni); and, c) we often hold a belief that behaviours never change, particularly when it comes to adults.

In an early blog post ‘Help! I’ve been pigeon-holed’, I wrote about the steps you need to take to unpigeon-hole yourself but I feel I need to dig deeper in one key area. Here’s the scenario: Kelly’s been given feedback that she’s always late (for meetings, on deadlines, etc.) It’s annoying her boss, peers and direct reports. So, Kelly spends the next two months purposefully being on time for her meetings and making sure she hits her deadlines. At a planning meeting, her boss assigns her a task and in a joking manner says ‘and Kelly it’s really critical that you get this in on time.’ Her colleagues have a little chuckle but Kelly is miffed at the comment. She hasn’t missed a deadline or been late for a meeting in two months! Why is she still being labelled as ‘that late girl?’

Here’s why: Kelly didn’t take the radical step of TELLING PEOPLE that she was going to change her behaviour. Instead, she just quietly soldiered on and then got frustrated when people didn’t recognize her attempts.

Here’s the thing about changing behaviours… it doesn’t really matter what you try if those around you don’t see the results. In my experience, actually attempting to do things differently and change your behaviour is only half the equation. The other – and possibly – more important half is having other people see that you’ve changed. And to do that… you need to be ‘up in their grill’ about your activities so that they know to look for the new stuff. It takes us a long time to shift our perceptions of others, so doing this quietly – like Kelly did – for two months, isn’t necessarily going to have people label her as the ‘on time/on deadline gal’.

You see, our brains like to keep things in neat little ‘boxes’ (aka pigeon holes). If I see you as someone who’s perpetually late, that’s where my brain has put you and it wants to keep you there because brains do that. We like routine and habit. We’ve got so much information and data flying at us on a millisecond to millisecond basis that we need these kinds of structures to stay sane. So, even though you show up for meetings on time for the next two month and were only late once, I’m going to focus on the one time you were late because that’s the behaviour that fits in my nice little pigeon-holed brain.

To get me to see you in a new light more quickly, you need to get me on board by letting me know VERY CLEARLY that ‘being on time’ is the behaviour that you’re working on. So begin by telling me, as your boss, that this is what you’re going to work on. Then in meetings, when you’re on time… make a point of making sure I register that. You can be direct (‘hey… here I am! On time!’) or simply say, something like ‘looks like it’s 9 a.m. and time to start. Is there anyone we’re still waiting for?’ Whatever…just make sure I’m seeing that you’re on time. In our next one to one’s, share the results (‘I’m proud to say I’ve been on time for all my meetings this week/month’ etc.). Keep putting that ‘I’m an on-time kind of person’ message in front of me until I say to you… ‘okay, I get it… you’re on time. Now let’s work on something else!’

This may sound ridiculous and somewhat like overkill, but it’s all about getting my lazy brain which has you firmly stuck in a ‘late guy/gal’ pigeon-hole to start to see your new behaviour. Chances are, you’re not going to be on time every time, but I’ll cut you more slack that one time you’re late if you’ve successfully managed to shift my perceptions.

We spend most of our careers thinking about the knowledge we need to acquire or the skills we need to develop. From my vantage point as a coach and leader, what limits our opportunities are the behaviours we either do or don’t exhibit. If you’d like to learn more about how you may be inadvertently limiting your opportunities, consider enrolling in one of our leadership programs. We’d love to help you succeed.

Happy leading!

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