10/01/2008

Queen Bee Syndrome

By Steve Bohler

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 suffering from what I call the "Queen Bee Syndrome."

 

Barry's view on career choice is all-too-common in the human world of work. The bee hive metaphor and the Queen Bee Syndrome are meant to draw attention to the differences between specialist and generalist 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 Specialist versus Generalist work and strongly correlates with job satisfaction (McDonald, 1989). It is tested by a few valid and reliable instruments (most notably the Highlands Ability Battery and the Johnson O' Connor aptitude testing).

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, and why it is important for career professionals to be aware of the Queen Bee Syndrome with their clients.

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 the Generalist 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 his/her talents and satisfaction of his/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 keeps 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 with his work.

Below are some tell-tale signs of a Specialist:

  • Shows a consistent preference to develop an expertise and be recognized as an authority with his/her own sphere of influence
  • Finds bureaucratic organizations difficult to "live in" and are likely to resist regulations, routines, and jobs that require marching lock-step with others; prefers to "march to a different drummer"
  • Feels like they are "on a different wave length" from others
  • Prefers to work alone and autonomously.

Someone suffering from the Queen Bee Syndrome may become dissatisfied and disengaged when:

  • They are in a role that is too broad and ambiguous.
  • They lack some sense of ownership and possession about work.
  • Their work has few or no ties to a subject of interest or a strong, personal work value.
  • They are unable to master their own body of knowledge or develop a skill of their own.
  • They are required to move from task to task or focus on multiple jobs at once.

Implications for Career Practitioners

The influence of being a Specialist is a potent and proven factor in an individuals' search for job satisfaction and, thus, of importance to career counselors or coaches. Typically, the Specialist is unaware of their orientation or why they are dissatisfied. Career practitioners may do well to be aware of the "queen bees" among their clients and advise them accordingly. Below are some suggestions.

  • Make the client aware of the Specialist/Generalist factor as both an explanation for current or past experiences/preferences and an important component of their "right livelihood."
  • Where applicable, help the Specialist client question whether a hierarchical organization is the right environmental fit for them. The typical organization is hierarchical in nature and is simply limited in opportunities for independent, specialist work.
  • Encourage the Specialist client to look for a specialty to develop in a future career, or in their present career as a way to alleviate job dissatisfaction and avoid an unnecessary career transition.
  • Where applicable, encourage the Specialist client to articulate their needs in career development discussions with management and in any individual development plans.
  • Where applicable, encourage the Specialist client to consider and plan for graduate-level education as part of their career path.
  • Place higher emphasis on interests and passions as career factors.

Counselors take note: whether a client is naturally a Specialist, or naturally a Generalist, this doesn't pigeon-hole them. If they are a Specialist and enjoy being an expert, they are not precluded from functioning as part of a team.

Summary

As career professionals we frequently assist clients to find more enjoyment and motivation in their professional lives. The Specialist/Generalist orientation is an important piece of the job satisfaction puzzle and the Queen Bee Syndrome may be an overlooked source of career problems. Considering that potentially one in four corporate employees is an unsuspecting Specialist, and that Specialists have unique needs in organizational roles, the Queen Bee Syndrome may play an important role in achieving greater engagement and job satisfaction. Career professionals are well-advised to be aware of this dynamic in their work with clients and understand its symptoms as well as its role in person-environment fit.

References

McDonald, R. D. (1989). The Highlands Ability Battery Technical Manual. The Highlands Company.

The Oxford Program's Self-Report of Specialist/Generalist


 

Steve Bohler holds a BA in Computer Science and a MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. He combines both fields as founder of the Oxford Program (http://www.theoxfordprogram.com/), a state-of-the-art elearning/ecounseling program for mid-career adults. After career stints as an IT executive, Oxford University rowing coach, and traditional career coach, Mr. Bohler pioneered the Oxford Method, a more holistic and systematic approach to career selection. He can be reached at coach@theoxfordprogram.com or 800-959-9183.

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