The Dangers of Typecasting within an Organization

My wife and I were first-time homeowners in 2010, a house built in 1881 that we will be renovating for years to come. Having to deal with life without a landlord to call on for the first time, we quickly adopted my uncle Eric as our unofficial handyman, handling everything from mowing the lawn to fixing the sinks and showers. Along the way, I inquired about redoing a floor and specifically tiling the floor.

"I'll help you with the floor," Eric said, "but I don't ever want to learn tiling because, once I do, I'll be doing it for the rest of my life."

This story came up earlier this month when I had the pleasure of being asked to speak at the Social Media Club of Louisville's monthly gathering. It was a lively crowd, with ringleader Jason Falls (and his trademark "heh") overseeing the festivities. I was there to talk about the spreadable media project I have been working on for the past couple of years with Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and my cohorts at the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. That particular story came up after the talk, as I discussed the dangers of specialization with a few of the many keen minds in attendance: Brian Moore from Humana; Nick Huhn, a digital strategist who formerly worked for Yum! Brands; and others.

We were discussing the reluctance we all sometimes have to learn skills or else to publicize skills that we have because of a fear that such knowledge would become an albatross. As job advice gurus preach to everyone that the best way to stay marketable is to specialize in ways that set your resume apart, that differentiation is also a double-edged sword. Employees end up set aside as the go-to person for creating "decks" (PowerPoint in the business world; actual decks in my uncle's case), the "social media guru," or the proofreading expert and soon may end up either feeling locked in a silo.

One of the skills in highest demand these days that runs this risk is fluency in Spanish. On the one hand, such a skill in communication and marketing can be invaluable for organizations. On the other, the fear arises that a person's career goals were curtailed because they were typecast.

We all occasionally encounter this issue on both fronts. Sometimes, we may be the expert who feels like our work is interrupted by colleagues who ask for the same types of things repeatedly, and we eventually end up downplaying what we know or are else sluggish to update our knowledge in an area in fear of becoming a resource to people without what we feel is proper compensation. Perhaps as often, though, we may find ourselves hitting a barrier or in a jam that we know our colleagues can quickly solve, so one call helps us to remember how to do "that thing in Excel" we seem to constantly forget.

For an organization to work optimally as a cohesive unit, we have to find our way past these roadblocks. Just because someone has a skill doesn't mean they should be defined by it. We have to ensure that a person's career goals are kept in mind and that she or he is positioned to grow holistically rather than be stuck in the niche we inadvertently put them in. And, if we have a skill, we have to think about how sharing it might help our colleagues. And we also have to consider how we can teach others something as we help them and remember that no good comes from making what we do a mysterious black box to those we collaborate with and that doing so won't render us obsolete (as long as we continue to grow).

Most of all, rather than turning to the same colleagues with the same question again and again (as I do with poor Ray Carroll in Peppercom's office every time I can't remember someone's phone extension, for instance), we should take the extra time to learn how to do it ourselves. It doesn't mean they won't remain our go-to expert, but we should embrace one another as fellow teachers and mentors, rather than outsourcing work to others that would be more convenient for all—including ourselves—for us to do. I learned early on when entering the public relations space that, while I will never consider myself our primary expert in writing a press release or developing a messaging script, it was a hindrance to myself and others not to learn traditional PR work, if nothing else to better ensure that what I do is of maximum use to my colleagues and our clients.

There's one thing I know for sure: it will be impossible for any of our organizations to innovate if we are reticent to learn new skills, lest it derail our career goals in the process.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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  • Erika Gimbel

    It's completely true what you said about the importance of learning how to share a skill. I ended up in PR and was good at pitching. But I don't like pitching at all! The best thing I've ever done is teach others how to pitch and coach them through the process. Some people like it! For me, it lessens the pain of having to do it myself.

  • Sam Ford

    Ericka, good point as to how knowing to pitch is a great help to your organization and career in the long run, even if it's something you don't end up doing. The question is, rather than refusing, how to end up doing what it is you want to do/what challenges you in the long run without refusing to do anything that doesn't deeply interest you.

  • Kami Huyse

    Very good point. I also think that it isn't good to avoid learning skills that you fear will typecast you because sometimes they are the very skills to lead you to the next level. I have learned this a couple of times in my life. First in high school when I refused to learn to type because I feared I would become a secretary like my Mom - obviously, typing became pretty important for everyone. I had to teach myself to type in college - bad move on my part. Also, early in my career when I launched a magazine for an industry. I didn't really want to become an editor. I loved PR and didn't want to get stuck in that role, Luckily I did it anyway and learned a lot about writing copy that people actually like, putting together an editorial calendar and other skills which have proved invaluable in this world where those who create content are currently winning.

  • Sam Ford

    It's a great point, Kami, that you can often learn skills doing something you don't necessarily want to do initially. We are often reticent to learn how to do certain things for fear that we'll either add some great burden onto ourselves or else that we won't enjoy it. Agreed, Kami. While no one wants to expand their job completely beyond what it is that drives them about their work in the first place, I think there's also a lot to learn from something you initially find yourself naturally resistant to doing. I often have to check that within stop and question myself when my natural inclination starts to feel along the lines of "that's not my job." I always supposed in graduate school that reading essays that one had little personal interest in--forcing yourself to "get" interested in them and see the world from the perspective of that author--would be an invaluable skill no matter what walk of life you find yourself in...

  • nickhuhn

    Spot on, Sam. I'm often afraid to admit that I have a strong command of Spanish, or design, or copywriting, et al... it's a shame to let talents atrophy for fear of being typecast. It's terrific to have a highly specialized skill or talent, but I find that there are many benefits to having an ocean of knowledge in disparate areas. I think that's why I'm now a consultant and not a an architect, lawyer, physician, or any of the other more normal roles that I'd "probably be so good" at performing.

    Let me know when you've figured out how to effectively cross-pollinate tacit knowledge across organizations... I know some folks I'd like to sell that to. :)

  • Sam Ford

    That's a deal, Nick. I think I'll need your help on this one (and anyone and everyone else reading this...) It's not particularly a sign of a bad organization, since I think this sort of "covering up our skills" is pretty widespread, but I think any organization that can begin to overcome this deserves great credit, and any individual who pays closer attention to the complicity in hiding their talents--or "outsourcing" their tasks regularly to a colleague--deserves credit as well.

  • nickhuhn

    Delegation and more frictionless collaboration are skills I value increasingly these days. It's so nice to be conversant and competent in many disparate aspects of the world... For me, I appreciate the added perspectives and experience that makes it easier to know when to hold em and when to fold em, and to know when to walk away and when to run, so to speak. :)