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13 Jan 2011

How We Unconsciously Pigeonhole People

We often pigeonhole people at work. This happens when we use their jobs to tell us what their talents are. When we define talents solely by people’s experiences, we pigeonhole people. We are not relying on our own assessment of their talents.

Experience Helps Us Pigeonhole People

In this sense people’s experiences serve as context for their talents. They are holders of those talents. We will also view any other talent we see within the context of those experiences.

For instance, we will think that the attention to detail of an engineer will only exist in a mechanical realm. We will not see it transferring to an artistic one such as cooking.

This also works in reverse too. If the engineer’s job does not require interpersonal skills, we will think he has very few.

We also pigeonhole people to their advantage. People who had worked at a well-respected firm get this benefit. We rate their talents higher than someone who did not.

This is very much the same that happens in sports. Those who play on winning teams are viewed better than those who did not. This occurs even though they might have the same performances.

Pigeonholing Exercise

Two images follow that help us see the way context influences us. Figure #1 asks, “Which dot is the darkest?”

This fun tool helps us see how people pigeonhole people at work.

Figure #1: Which dot is darkest?

The right one seems to be. Figure #2 shows that there are more than two dots. It also shows they are the same color. It is their context that makes their color seem different. We do the same with people. How we color their talents is based on how we color their jobs.

Figure #2: All The Same

Wrongly Assessing Talent

This hit me when a bank sent a banker to an investment class. They did this even though he had seven years of experience as a stock broker. They did this with another banker later. She had three years of experience managing a multi-million dollar portfolio.

In both cases, they could only see them as bankers. That was their job. Thus, they needed investment training.

We have become very dependent on context to assess people’s talents. See for yourself. At your next party or meeting, try assessing people’s talents. Do it without asking what they do or looking at their resume.


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