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:
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:
Someone suffering from the Queen Bee Syndrome may become dissatisfied and disengaged when:
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.
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.
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.
McDonald, R. D. (1989). The Highlands Ability Battery Technical Manual. The Highlands Company.
The Oxford Program's Self-Report of Specialist/Generalist