Karl Weick's Creativity

Why Specialists are Grumpy and Generalists are Happy

Posted May 29, 2010

Karl Weick is a psychologist from the University of Michigan and one of my intellectual heroes. Karl is one of our most imaginative theorists, and also a gracious person who cares deeply about ideas. For example, I love his argument that the right attitude for learning and creativity is to "argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong," which strikes me as the right path for developing strong opinions, weakly held.

Weick's ideas about arguing and listening reminded me of an exercise that I use in a doctoral class that I teach every few years on "The Craft of Organizational Research." One theme is to help students identify the writings they love most, who their heroes are, who they want to be like when they grow-up -- so they can build a career that will enable them to do good work and to enjoy doing it.   As I say to them, my hero is Karl Weick. I pick an excerpt from his 1989 Academy of Management Review article called "Theory Building as Disciplined Imagination" as it weaves together Karl's keen observational powers, knowledge of empirical research, and his uncanny knack for blending diverse ideas in ways that surprise and delight his readers. 

First, let me set the stage for his quote. Weick was writing about the notion that good theorists should like new evidence that disconfirms their ideas, as it speeds the process of building interesting theory. But then he goes on to say that this doesn't always happen because, once a theorist has a strong investment in a theory  and has well-organized defenses and ideas about that theory, and is planning to spread the theory, new ideas (especially disconfirming evidence) will likely be experienced as upsetting to him or her -- even if they improve the theory -- because such interruptions throw a monkey wrench in current plans, causing the person to go through new cognitive effort and threatening to destroy something that he or she has worked hard to build and defend -- and  I would add to often lash and destroy the offending ideas and evidence (and perhaps the person who has them).  Then he adds this statement about generalists and specialists:

"Generalists, people with moderately strong attachments to many ideas, should be hard to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have weaker, shorter negative negative reactions since they have alternative paths to realize their plans. Specialists, people with stronger attachments to fewer ideas, should be easier to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have stronger,more sustained negative reactions because they have fewer alternative pathways to realize their plans. Generalists should be the the upbeat, positive people in the profession while specialists should be their grouchy, negative counterparts (page 526)."

I don't know about the people that you work with, but in my field -- although I won't name any names -- this theory works pretty well.  The people who have devoted their lives to developing just one idea or a few seem most grumpy to me. And it makes sense.  If you believe in just one idea very strongly, new information either supports it (that is not an interruption, just more signs you are right, so you can hum along), challenges it (so you have to change the one thing you know and love or attack the idea), or it is an irrelevant distraction from the one little would that really matters to you (your one true pet theory, that you have devoted so much effort to building).  This logic not only applies to academics, I've heard my wife argue that the grumpiest lawyers are those who are so specialized that "they know almost everything about something that is so narrow and obtuse that it seems like almost nothing,"  these ultra-specialists often have no interest in other law, client's related business problems,  or what other lawyers do.  And, like ultra-specialists in other fields, they believe that others are really too naive and stupid to understand their precious, well-developed, but very specialized ideas.

I wonder, does Weick's observation ring true for other occupations and pursuits?  Note this is an untested hypothesis as far as I know, but it sure is interesting.