In a popular 2007 movie called “Bee Movie”, the main bee character, Barry B. Benson, graduates from college and finds himself disillusioned with the prospect of having only one career choice – producing honey with the majority of the hive. Barry is drawn to the seemingly more interesting, Specialist role of the elite “Pollen Jocks,” a position open to a relative few. Barry shows the tell-tale signs of a Specialist who suffers from what I call the “Queen Bee Syndrome.”
Barry’s view on career choice is all-too-common in the world of work. The beehive metaphor and the Queen Bee Syndrome are meant to draw attention to the differences between Specialist and Generalist at work and the problems that arise when a specialist is stuck in the role of a Generalist.
Specialists versus Generalists
A component of personal style is one’s disposition towards work as Specialist versus Generalist. It strongly correlates with job satisfaction (McDonald, 1989) and is tested by a few valid and reliable instruments, like the Highlands Ability Battery.
While research indicates that only 25% of the population are Specialists (McDonald, 1989), I was surprised to see that roughly 75% of my career-change clients were scoring as Specialists. Let me explain why I think this may be the case.
Specialists, by nature or nurture, are independent workers. Specialists can be described as “an inch wide and a mile deep” in relation to their work, while Generalists can be described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Specialists are said to “wear their career like skin” and prefer to think of their vocation in terms of “I am a…” rather than “I do XYZ for company ABC.”
Specialists are less likely to be comfortable as managers because they tend to prefer things done “their way,” find delegating difficult, and are motivated more by work in a specialized area than on the overall goals of the group. They prefer to develop an expertise in a narrow area of work, as opposed to Generalists, who work well on a team and typically put the team’s goals first. The Specialist’s motivation is not necessarily with the goals of the team or organization, but with the use of her talents and satisfaction of her values.
Generalists, on the other hand, are content to be a useful part of the beehive. They understand intuitively how others react and feel at work. They can have a deep interest or passion about work, but always keep the team in mind. The Generalist tends to:
- Pursue goals and solve problems best by working in groups.
- Find it easy to delegate and be delegated to.
- Move easily from job to job as needed.
Hallmarks of the “Queen Bee Syndrome”
The Queen Bee Syndrome kicks in when a Specialist is working in the role of a Generalist and is likely to feel frustrated, dissatisfied, and disengaged from work.
Here are some tell-tale signs of a Specialist:
- Shows a consistent preference to develop an area of expertise and be recognized as an authority within his or her own sphere of knowledge.
- Finds bureaucratic organizations difficult to “live in” and is likely to resist regulations, routines, and jobs that require marching lock-step with others. He prefers to “march to a different drummer.”
- Operates “on a different wavelength” from others.
- Prefers to work alone and autonomously.
Workers suffering from the Queen Bee Syndrome may become dissatisfied and disengaged when they…
- Are in a role that is too broad and ambiguous.
- Lack some sense of ownership and possession about work.
- Work has few or no ties to a subject of interest or a strong personal work value.
- Are unable to master their own body of knowledge or develop a skill of their own.
- Are required to move from task to task or focus on multiple jobs at once.
Implications for the Specialist’s Job Search
The influence of being a Specialist is a potent and proven factor in the search for job satisfactions. Below are some suggestions for making sure Queen Bee Syndrome doesn’t stand in your way.
- Be aware of the Specialist/Generalist factor as both an explanation for current or past experiences/preferences and an important component of the “right livelihood.”
- Question whether a hierarchical organization is the right environmental fit. The typical organization is hierarchical in nature and is simply limited in opportunities for independent, specialist work.
- Look for a specialty to develop in another career, or in your present career, as a way to alleviate job dissatisfaction and avoid an unnecessary career transition.
- Articulate your needs in career development discussions with management and in any individual development plans.
- Place higher emphasis on interests and passions as career factors.
It’s important to note that whether one is naturally a Specialist, or naturally a Generalist, there is no need to be pigeon-holed. If you’re a Specialist and enjoy being an expert, you aren’t precluded from functioning as part of a team.
The key now, then, is to know which one you are and use that information to find joy in the workplace. The Highlands Ability Battery will help you do just that.
McDonald, R. D. (1989). The Highlands Ability Battery Technical Manual. The Highlands Company.