Are We Undervaluing Specialists in Our Organizations?

Thanks to a timely share on LinkedIn, I recently stumbled across an insight published by Kellogg at Northwestern titled Everyone Loves a Generalist.  It’s about how we may have a systematic bias for people with generalist skill sets; and therefore a bias against people with deep specialties.


The article outlines implications for management and talent strategy, with a parting shot summed up as this:

“A few words of advice for managers? Try to keep the comparisons between generalists and specialists to a minimum. (Indeed, in some of Wang and Murnighan’s studies, the researchers found that the generalist bias can be reduced when participants are encouraged to judge specialists on their own terms, as opposed to comparing them to generalists.) And above all, says Murnighan, be that conductor: “There I am, there’s my team, let me look at the interactions from a distance and say, ‘What is it that I need to change? What do I know that I’m too close to the process to really see?’””

So, if we are to build a talent model for an organization, are we thinking about where the all around athletes belong vs. where we need deep subject matter expertise?

More importantly, are we thinking about what the value vs. cost of that all around athlete is vs. the specialist?

This insight would suggest we are overpaying for generalist talent when we hire, and perhaps under-developing specialists within our own midst. Most importantly, we may all too often try to equate or compare the two.

The article offers a stealthy but scathing indictment of managers who only want to hire the all-around athlete, calling them “myopic,” risk averse, and somewhat narcissistic (no, that last word isn’t used, but it is implicit in the article…look for it).

File this one under talent and strategy…They go together nicely.

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