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Hiring? Don't Underestimate the Specialists

New research shows basketball coaches--and managers--have a bias for generalists to the detriment of their teams.
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People, according to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, can be divided into either foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing.

Ever since, thinkers have been arguing over the relevant value of the two approaches, but whatever the state of the debate among philosophers, it appears that here in more immediately practical realms the question has already been functionally decided -- coaches and managers, new research, reveals, favor foxes and undervalue hedgehogs.

The finding comes out of the Kellogg School where a basketball-obsessed doctoral student Long Wang noticed that three-point shot experts, while immensely valuable in changing the dynamics of the game and the success of their teams, were generally relatively uncelebrated. Were coaches giving these specialists their due, he wondered?

Together with his advisor he designed a series of the studies to look into whether specialists’ impact exceeds their esteem among coaches and fans. What did he find? “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,” Kellogg insight explains.

NBA fans given a fantasy basketball type challenge where they were asked to choose players for an imaginary team also preferred generalists over specialists, even when they were explicitly told the team needed the services of a three-point shooter. All of which is of great interest to basketball coaches and fans, but it turns out the findings are equally relevant to business owners. Further studies showed this pro-generalist bias isn’t confined to sports.

What This Means to You

"It is a tendency that extends to the workplace as well," Kellogg Insight reports. "In another study... 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." A further study showed job ads that asked for specialists actually also demanded applicants have skills in more than one domain more than a third of the time, again demonstrating our hesitancy to embrace the true specialist.

So what’s the cure for all this hedgehog hate?

Hiring managers preference for foxes is rooted in their tendency to be foxes themselves and the natural impulse to compare specialists with generalists side by side, which often results in what looks like a long-list of deficits for the hedgehog even though their one standout skill may be exactly what the team needs.

The solution, according to the research team, is to try and think of yourself as a conductor, bringing together a group of players with varied skill sets to make a harmonious whole much the way an orchestra is a blended group of specialists.

What else helps? “Try to keep the comparisons between generalists and specialists to a minimum,” advises Kellogg Insight. “The generalist bias can be reduced when participants are encouraged to judge specialists on their own terms, as opposed to comparing them to generalists.”

Check out the complete article for a deep dive into the research.

Look around your office. How many true specialists do you see? Should their be more?

 

 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Aug 7, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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