If you happen to work in an organization, like most of the audience who reads this post, there is a reality you must come to grips with. We are all in a box. That box is constructed out of the perceptions others have of us. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it seems like it’s just human nature for us to put people in boxes. We tend to categorize people into boxes based on past experience, personal observations and hearsay from others with whom we and/or they interact. I guess it’s simply easier for us to put people in boxes and leave them there than it is for us to keep an open mind and continually and objectively reevaluate our assessments.
Please understand, not all boxes are bad. If you are perceived as an exceptional leader for all the right reasons, then you may like the box you’re in, and work hard to maintain it. If you are perceived as a kind and generous person or a valued mentor, you may want to work hard to preserve that box as well. But through years of Executive Coaching I have noticed how easy it is for people to be placed in a box that they don’t necessarily like, and how difficult it is for them to get out. I have also seen leaders surprised by the box they have found themselves in. Never in their wildest dreams did they think they would ever be perceived in such a way.
People get “boxed in” for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is your new boss who does not like your style, so your evaluations begin to plummet. Sometimes it is the new team you’ve have been assigned to lead who resist your new management style, or it’s your peers who thought they should have been selected for the job instead of you who tend to “throw you under the bus”. Sometimes it is a mistake you made from which you cannot seem to recover. Sometimes it is unfounded rumors that wreak havoc on your reputation. Sometimes a colleague you worked with or were close to blew it, and people judge you by association. Sometimes, you have simply blown it in your interactions with others, and regardless of your efforts, that cloud keeps hanging over you, locking you into your box.
Sometimes the box you are, that you don’t necessarily like, is actually the right box for you at this time. For example, you may be a strong individual contributor who aspires to be a leader, but cannot seem to get out of the box you have been assigned to in order to demonstrate your leadership capabilities. Maybe your personal style calls for significant changes that you have not quite mastered yet that prevent you from being seen in a different light. The sooner your accept that this is the box you are in, the sooner you can create strategies for getting out.
Regardless of how you ended up in the box you’re in, there is a psychological truth that you must know:
“Once you are in a box, you don’t get out until they let you out.”
The true challenge then is how to get out of the box you don’t want to be in. Some simply chose to leave their boss, team or organization for a fresh start with a new box. That can be good option that turns out well. But if you have not accepted this psychological truth, you’re likely to find yourself facing the same situation again. Others work really hard to change their behavior and claw their way out of the box. This is also a good option. Given time, this change in behavior can lead to a change in people’s perceptions of you and can result in them letting you out of the box.
However, I have seen many leaders work hard to change their behaviors, and be incredibly disappointed that they were not allowed out of their box. The negative perceptions persisted and their careers seemed to stall.
You ask, is there a solution? Yes, there is a way out of the box. In order to get out of the box you must change the conversation about you in the organization. While that’s a challenge, it is not impossible. And there are ways to accelerate that change, but there are a couple of more psychological truths that you will have to come to grips with first. Those we will cover in a future post.