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Polymathy: A New Kind of Diversity That Could Take Your Business to the Cutting Edge

Thursday, August 27, 2020
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Everyone knows the importance of having diversity on their teams—how it helps avoid groupthink, supports the emergence of the broadest ideas, and fosters an environment that gives rise to the most optimal solutions. However, have we considered that the diversity construct itself needs to become more diversified?

There are different forms of diversity we need to consider. Looking at only race or gender is not enough anymore; neither is looking for diversity within a group. It is time to look for diversity within individuals.

Why Intrapersonal Diversity Matters

Having a diverse group of people on your team is great; but it can also be powerful to hire a person who is intrapersonally diverse themselves . Such a person—a polymath—brings a new kind of diversity to your team. A polymath is someone who has broad and disparate but deep skills across disciplines. As a result, that person is particularly well-suited to innovate, particularly when looking at issues at the intersection of multiple disciplines. A polymath is someone who can harness a varied toolkit of skills to help solve problems. Polymaths can also apply methods used in one field and apply them in new ways to other disciplines, which allows for great innovations. This is in contrast to specialists—those with more narrow, domain-limited sets of professional experiences and knowledge.

The Limitations of Specialists

One problem with hiring in general, though, is that when managers are trying to fill a position, they typically want to see a story that shows commitment to a single career path when they review applicants’ résumés. Managers frequently look for a consistent “story” of specialization within a discipline. Hiring managers typically want to select an employee who has spent their career in a single career field and have a solid commitment and focus on mastering that area of expertise. Résumés with seemingly disconnected positions often tell a story that quickly turns off hiring managers, so those applicants rarely have an opportunity to interview for the position.

While hiring single-discipline experts may be appropriate and strategic for some positions, such as more routine work in accounting or human resources, consistently hiring with that focus could backfire if employees are hired for jobs that are not routine or stable, such as information technology or product development. While deep experts can innovate, they can also hold a limiting bias toward their approaches to problem solving, influenced by the lens of their chosen discipline. Deep experts may have on “blinders,” based on the single lens through which they have chosen to see the world.

Visual Depiction of Polymathic Synthesis Across Domains

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Polymathy Figure.png

The Power of the Polymath

Polymaths and people with polymathic approaches to problem-solving can see things from multifaceted perspectives. They are great synthesizers of information who can forge connections where others do not see the links. They can apply lessons learned from one domain to different fields, leading to innovative solutions. It is precisely this analogical thinking that can help take organizations to the next level. If organizations desire groundbreaking innovations, then polymaths could be a strategic tool to realize that goal.

Strategic Hiring, Retention, and Development of Polymaths

Here are a few ideas for how leaders can support more innovation in their organizations to help their businesses stay competitive:

1. Hire polymaths. One way is to strategically hire polymaths. Show that you see the value in team members with broad, varied experiences, knowledge bases, and perhaps even disparate prior career paths, especially in positions that need to help resolve difficult problems. Polymathic types bring experience from multiple domains, which allows them to offer new and valuable perspectives. They have many tools in their analytical and technical toolkits.

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Next time you see a résumé that does not show a specialized career in the field for which you are hiring, consider interviewing the person anyway and ask questions such as, “Can you tell me about the different disciplines and areas that you have expertise in professionally or personally? How do you think your prior experience in those fields applies to and can help you in the job you are interviewing for today?”

2. Retain polymaths. Polymaths tend to value freedom, flexibility, and the ability to challenge the status quo; they do not like fitting into boxes. They defy convention and want to work for employers who will let them fully leverage their talents. To retain polymaths and reap the benefits of their talents, create a workplace environment that provides them with these conditions so that their greatest ideas, insights, and solutions are welcomed.

3. Develop those with polymathic potential. If you have single-discipline experts on your team, encourage them to expand into other fields to create professional depth and breadth of what they know. Do you have a staff member who works in human resources but wants to learn more about IT? Support a temporary assignment in a different division or send them to a class to learn more. Encourage them to become professionally diversified by exploring other career fields while retaining their current expertise.

The Workplace of the Future

Imagine what your workplace would look like if it had more polymaths—team members with intellectual dexterity who think strategically across domains to integrate and synthesize information. Innovative connections are made possible through this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas. Having various prior experiences is the key.
Think broadly about the affect you have on your business in terms of hiring and retaining good people. Continue hiring those specialists into positions where specialization makes sense. But remember, there is power in the polymath too. If you are looking for innovation, polymaths may be the key to the kinds of creative solutions you desire.

About the Author

Dr. Angela Cotellessa earned her doctorate in Human and Organizational Learning from George Washington University. Her doctoral research and dissertation, In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century, was focused on modern-day polymaths.

3 Comments
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Thank you for doing the research behind this and sharing the results. I enjoyed reading it so much and seeing how much it applied to me,
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Wow. I learned a new word and that it actually applies to me!
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Dr. Cotellessa nails it here! How many years (decades?) have we heard critical thinking is key to meeting the mission? An applicant or current employee with broad AND deep knowledge and experience is a great complement to the specialists on the team.
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