Why It’s Good to Be a Generalist (and Bad to Be Steve Novak)

One of the more meaningless ongoing education policy debates concerns the value of a liberal arts education. (I call it a meaningless because if you’re going to Wesleyan, you’re not somebody policy makers should be concerned about.) The disagreement essentially boils down to the more-important question of whether it’s better to be a specialist or a generalist — i.e. should a person develop expertise in a small set of specific areas, or develop proficiency in a wider set of general domains? A new study by Long Wang and J. Keith Murnigham suggests that it’s better for a person to be a generalist, but not because it makes them more productive. Through a series of experiments the researchers found that people express a preference for generalists over specialists, even when that preference is irrational because a special skill is desired that generalists lack. In other words, people tend to get credit for irrelevant skills:

This research introduces the generalist bias – a tendency to reward and select people with general skills when complementary, specialized skills are needed. Five studies investigated its effects. Study 1 confirmed the existence of the bias in a context-free experiment. Study 2 showed that the compensation of players in NBA teams was related to their two- rather than their three-point scoring. Study 3 showed that basketball fans favored all-around players even when three-point shooters would better complement a team’s needs. Study 4 showed that the generalist bias occurred in HR recruiting, and Study 5 showed that companies often recruited specialists to handle multiple, unrelated jobs.

These tendencies are not necessarily irrational. Things don’t often go as planned, an therefore it’s useful to have people who can transition into other roles. Being a generalist may also indicate a person has a greater capacity to learn and develop new skills. On the other hand, it’s possible that the focus on these hypotheticals is an irrational logic that stems from management’s obsession with transformative technologies, unpredictability, and “staying ahead of the game.” In terms of building an NBA contender, Bill Simmons has long been pushing the view that specialists are undervalued because teams only need 3-5 stars or quality-starters and a host of role players. These findings lend some credence to that view, as well as the possibility that teams can get better value in the NBA drat by focusing on players who are great at one particular thing.

——————————————————————————————————————————————- Wang, L., & Murninghan, J.K. (2012). The generalist bias Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.09.001

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