Work and its demands are more fluid than ever. Organizations need dynamic employees with capabilities that span multiple disciplines. Enter the generalists—people with a broad range of experience, training, and thinking that enable them to tackle the challenges of rapidly evolving workplaces.
Despite these positive attributes, generalists often feel unsupported in their development, unrecognized for their contributions, and disconnected from their workplace community:
Workplace evolution can be challenging, but it's not all bad news. When conditions change, our work and teams can be more innovative than ever. Change encourages us to create, take risks, and try new things. Organizations need employees who operate comfortably in ambiguity. Workers who have dynamic skillsets and capabilities. These employees are the generalists.
What is a generalist employee?
Generalists aren’t dabblers or jacks of all trades. They’re problem solvers and innovators, equipped to adapt and fill in the gaps. They possess a unique combination of abilities and expertise that allows them to tackle the insecurity of a changing workplace.
This unique combination of abilities differentiates generalists from specialists—employees who focus on a single skillset for years. Generalists see the bigger picture and connect disparate ideas to find new solutions for their work communities. They’re curious, imaginative, and willing to experiment. They want to think outside the box and don’t get bogged down in conventional methods.
Skills and behaviors that make generalists an invaluable part of a thriving workplace community.
Harvard Business Review found over 90% of 17,000 CEOs they studied had general, not specialized, management experience.
Research shows more than half of generalists (51%) thrive in ambiguity, roughly two-thirds (65%) cope well in highly stressful situations, and nearly three-fourths (71%) prefer projects that challenge their skills and thinking.
When generalists are given work and projects that push their thinking, it increases the probability of:
- Great work by 804%
- Engagement by 289%
- Inclusion by 300%
How to help generalists thrive at work
Provide opportunities for generalists to grow
Set goals with generalists that focus on employee development. Highlight their achievements along the way. Give them modern leaders who will mentor and connect them to the opportunities that allow them to use their range of skills.
Connect generalists to their strengths
Start by simply asking generalist employees what their strengths are. Give them projects that utilize and stretch those skills in interesting ways. More likely than not, generalists respond well to varied types of assignments and situations. Connect them with other departments or peers who can leverage their strengths.
It’s important to note: For generalists to truly thrive, organizations should embrace a holistic approach to overall business success. Leaders must be willing to empower generalists to take uncertain paths to deliver results. Be flexible and open-minded about what work can look like for these handy multi-tools. In other words, leave them to their methods, and they just might surprise you.
Prioritize employee recognition
Just as generalists can bounce from project to project and work across disciplines, they can also get lost in the shuffle. Recognition has a powerful impact on generalists. But it must be personalized and frequent to be effective.
Generalists thrive on diversity and new challenges. Find time in the everyday employee experience to celebrate generalists and their unique contributions. Recognition should come from leaders, peers, and even colleagues. And when it’s integrated—meaning it’s personalized, frequent, and part of the everyday culture—the data shows a magnified impact on the great work, engagement, and inclusion of generalists.
Generalists bring a unique range of experience to innovate and lead in the constantly changing workplace. But they need challenges and room to grow, along with frequent, personalized recognition so they can thrive and remain engaged in their work.
Check out our 2023 Global Culture Report for the research and trends that will keep your workplace culture relevant and thriving.