Everyone Loves a Generalist
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Organizations Leadership Aug 5, 2013

Every­one Loves a Generalist

Spe­cial­ists are under­val­ued, on sports teams and in the workplace

Based on the research of

Long Wang

J. Keith Murnighan

Listening: Keith Murnighan on Why We Love Generalists

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Three-point shoot­ing can make or break a bas­ket­ball team’s suc­cess — just ask the most accu­rate three-point shoot­er in NBA his­to­ry, Steve Kerr, with five nation­al cham­pi­onships under his belt. By sink­ing long-dis­tance shots, a three-point shoot­er can open up the court, tru­ly chang­ing the tenor of the game.

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Yet the major­i­ty of three-point shoot­ers in the game are rarely accord­ed much acclaim. Indeed, accord­ing to Sports Illus­trat­ed, for sev­er­al years even Kerr was a guy who went vir­tu­al­ly unre­cruit­ed because he couldn’t jump and was two steps slow.” Is it true that three point shoot­ers, despite pos­sess­ing a rel­a­tive­ly rare skillset, are under­val­ued by coach­es and fans?

Man­agers and Fans Min­i­mize Spe­cial­ists’ Contributions

Long Wang, an avid bas­ket­ball fan, had long won­dered just this. He approached his then doc­tor­al advi­sor, Kei­th Murnighan, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment. The pair decid­ed to inves­ti­gate: might we have a bias toward gen­er­al­ists, who pos­sess a wide range of skills, over spe­cial­ists, who have nar­row but deep expertise?

Do you want five supe­ri­or ath­letes, or one clunky, non­jump­ing, great-shoot­ing three-point shoot­er and four great athletes?”

Wang, now an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong, and Murnighan put their the­o­ry to the test. In a series of stud­ies, the researchers indeed found evi­dence of a bias in favor of generalists.

In one study, Wang and Murnighan used salary and per­for­mance data for over 300 NBA play­ers to find that, on aver­age, the three-point spe­cial­ists’ salaries are tied not to their three-point shoot­ing, but to their two-point shoot­ing — even though their three-point shoot­ing has the big­ger impact on their team’s per­for­mance. In oth­er words, these spe­cial­ists, unlike their gen­er­al­ist team­mates, are not com­pen­sat­ed based on the actu­al role they play in their teams’ success.

But don’t go blam­ing the NBA pro­fes­sion­als; reg­u­lar fans are also like­ly to dis­count three-point spe­cial­ists. In anoth­er study, Wang and Murnighan asked fans to imag­ine that they were the gen­er­al man­ag­er of an NBA team in need of a good three-point shoot­er. The par­tic­i­pants were shown three play­er pro­files: Which would they recruit, and how much should each be paid? The par­tic­i­pants were more inclined to recruit and com­pen­sate the gen­er­al­ist (whose two- and three-point shoot­ing were both above aver­age) over the three-point spe­cial­ist (whose three-point shoot­ing was excep­tion­al, but whose over­all scor­ing was below aver­age). Because the instruc­tions empha­sized that the team need­ed a three-point shoot­er, favor­ing the gen­er­al­ist was evi­dence of a gen­er­al­ist bias,” the researchers write.

The Haz­ards of Direct Comparisons

What could be going on? Why do three-point­er spe­cial­ists seem to get short shrift, even when, for a par­tic­u­lar role, they add more val­ue to their team than would anoth­er generalist?

For one, Murnighan explains, we have a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to com­pare peo­ple against one anoth­er — and when we com­pare three-point spe­cial­ists to over­all stars, they look ter­ri­ble. Do you want five supe­ri­or ath­letes, or one clunky, non­jump­ing, great-shoot­ing three-point shoot­er and four great ath­letes? In fact, the five great ones — on aver­age — might each be bet­ter than this guy, but as a team you do bet­ter when you have a role play­er who can do some­thing special.”

It is a ten­den­cy that extends to the work­place as well. In anoth­er study, Long and Murnighan found that par­tic­i­pants pos­ing as hir­ing man­agers over­looked the spe­cial­ist bet­ter equipped to fill the job at hand in favor of a gen­er­al­ist with more over­all experience.

Anoth­er study exam­ined job ads post­ed to Mon­ster and Career­builder. How many com­pa­nies, the researchers won­dered, would adver­tise for a true spe­cial­ist? They found that even posi­tions flagged for spe­cial­ists asked appli­cants to have skillsets in two dis­tinct domains about 36% of the time. More­over, larg­er orga­ni­za­tions — those orga­ni­za­tions best poised to take advan­tage of spe­cial­ists’ unique skillsets — were more like­ly to demand mul­ti­ple skillsets from their spe­cial­ists than small­er organizations.

Man­agers Must Learn to Conduct

Man­agers are myopic, says Murnighan. In an ide­al world, a hir­ing man­ag­er would be like a con­duc­tor, stand­ing on a podi­um, baton in hand, know­ing how many vio­lin­ists, vio­lists, cel­lists, and horn play­ers are need­ed to pre­vent Beethoven from sound­ing tin­ny. When you’re hir­ing all at once, it’s real­ly easy to see exact­ly what you might need,” he says. But, of course, most teams are formed one play­er at a time, and for man­agers on the ground, inti­mate­ly involved,” he says, it’s much hard­er to see that. And that’s when imme­di­ate com­par­isons run in and you just aren’t going to val­ue a spe­cial­ist as much as you should.”

Anoth­er fac­tor may also con­tribute to the gen­er­al­ist bias: risk aver­sion. If I was the gen­er­al man­ag­er of a bas­ket­ball team, it would be easy for me to jus­ti­fy hir­ing one great ath­lete after the next because you can [jus­ti­fy] their indi­vid­ual sta­tis­tics real­ly well,” says Murnighan. But focus­ing on syn­er­gy — rather than any giv­en indi­vid­ual — is riski­er: When you have a high-risk, high-return strat­e­gy ver­sus a mid­dle-of-the-road, safer strat­e­gy, peo­ple will often take that.” Indeed, this may at least part­ly explain why large cor­po­ra­tions — with their greater empha­sis on account­abil­i­ty — seem more biased toward gen­er­al­ists than small­er ones.

Final­ly, as man­age­ment requires peo­ple to wear many hats — cheer­leader, enforcer, orga­niz­er, goal-set­ter — many man­agers are them­selves gen­er­al­ists. This too works against spe­cial­ists. We real­ly are attract­ed to like-mind­ed oth­er peo­ple,” explains Murnighan. And so we tend to repli­cate ourselves.”

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?’”

Featured Faculty

J. Keith Murnighan

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations from 1996-2016

About the Writer

Jessica Love is the staff science writer and editor for Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Wang, Long, and J. Keith Murnighan. 2013. “The Generalist Bias.” Decision Processes. 120: 47–61.

Read the original

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