Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

I always enjoy books that challenge conventional thinking. I find it always important to question and wrestle with the way I typically approach problems or other situations. For that reason, I highly recommend reading the book Range by David Epstein.

Epstein takes on the fundamental assumption that going deeper (specialization) is better for problem solving in our increasingly complex world than it is to have many diverse experiences (generalization). According to Epstein, generalists are in the best position to solve problems and innovate in an increasingly complex environment.

He writes that human’s unique strength is in the ability to think broadly, which is a capability that is uniquely human and difficult to teach a machine or algorithm to do effectively. He cites numerous examples from sports to medicine to space travel where the specialists got it wrong and a more general view would have been more beneficial.

There are many implications to leadership in business in the research Epstein compiles in Range.

One lesson is about over-reliance on data, which Epstein illustrates using the Challenger explosion as an example. At the Johnson Space Center a plaque in the mission control room read, “In God We Trust—All Others Bring Data.” Epstein explains how NASA’s culture made it rely on quantitative analysis too much, which he argues helped to bring on the decision to launch the Challenger when the O-rings were vulnerable to failure.

I highly recommend the book and believe that all leaders can benefit from its lessons. Next week I will write about some of the implications of Range’s findings to organizational development.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Generalized knowledge may be advantageous for leaders to develop new ways to solve long standing problems.

Range is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount).

Is it cool to be negative?

On February 4th 2019, I woke up to a social media blitz of posts that were mostly variations on the same theme: “Worst Super Bowl ever” and “Worst Super Bowl halftime show ever”. In case you are living under a rock, Super Bowl LIII (53) pitted the young, high-scoring Los Angeles Rams offense against the dynastic New England Patriots. The Patriots won their 6th championship of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era by a score of 13-3.

The low-scoring affair was panned as “boring”. If you ask people, watching the Patriots win their 6th championship in 9 appearances, was a painfully dull affair. Coupled with the game itself, the half time show was criticized for a lackluster performance by the topless and heavily tattooed Adam Levine, lead singer of the band Maroon 5.

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This is just one instance that I have seen lately of collective negativity on social media. Lately, I have noticed it more and it is contagious.

The more I have been exposed to sources of negativity, the more I found myself being more critical and negative at work. Colleagues would ask me for my opinion on one thing or another and I often heard myself expressing a negative perspective with a message like, “that will never work” or “that will never happen”. In my own experience, I try to avoid people who tend to have a negative outlook because I find it to be de-energizing. But with negativity being so pervasive on social media, I had to ask: Is it cool to be negative? Why do we reward negative behavior?

In my research, I found an article in the Harvard Business Review by Dr. Eileen Chou, a professor at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia entitled, Why We’re Drawn to Leaders Who Emphasize the Negative. In her article, Chou presented studies that show that people are drawn to negative rhetoric more than they are to positive, citing human psychology and social hierarchy as an explanation. For example, she hypothesizes that negative leaders seem more independent, so we are more likely to follow them.

However, she concludes that human fondness of negativity in leaders may not last in the long run. Perceptions of leaders can change over time and someone who is simply negative about everything may seem unreasonable.

I remember interacting with someone very early in my career who was consistently negative about new ideas. It was my first exposure to the strong tide of, “We tried that once and it didn’t work” and “But we’ve always done it this way”. At the time, I remember respectfully responding, “I am not interested in the 10,000 ways something will not work, but I am interested in the 1 way it can”.

I still believe in that sentiment. I believe that anything can be solved with the right team working on it for the right reasons. However, the pull of negativity is psychologically strong and we are increasingly surrounded by it on social media. We have to accept it as a tactic that online influencers will sometimes use to build up their brand and followers.

Since society is moving us towards negativity, it is up to us to act:

First to be aware of it.

Second, we should understand and filter it. Understanding it entails deciding whether it is a genuine perspective or just click-bait negativity. If it is a genuine perspective, we should ask for more detail to learn about it. We should challenge our assumptions as to whether someone is a negative person, or is expressing constructive criticism or caution because the latter who are important to hear. Over-optimism can lead to group-think and that be damaging too. If the remarks are click-bait negativity, filter it by ignoring it and moving on.

Third and finally, for major business decisions, leaders should always be scenario planning for the multiple outcomes using tools like the Implications wheel.

Glorifying the negative can have damaging effects on organizations and societies. Practicing reflection and self-awareness can go a long way. Even something as simple as saying, “I am not sure” rather than defaulting to a negative point of view can be empowering. Staying positive may be tough, but it is an important leadership trait and hallmark to keep the energy and motivation up in your team.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Staying positive is difficult and being attracted to negativity is rooted in human psychology. Through awareness, understanding, filtering, and scenario planning, we can hear constructive criticism, take caution, and understand negative outcomes in a helpful context.