Would we be willing to take on a task that is outside of our area of expertise? At first, we might say no. We might feel these tasks are not for us or we’re not sure. But, if it helps our team, would we do it? Maybe!

What if we perform poorly in this new task? We might feel embarrassed or mad, and it could stress or demotivate us.

Forced task inferiority is when experts are challenged to do things that are outside of their area of expertise, which can lead to frustration and a heightened arousal state. Surprisingly, this heightened emotional state can improve their performance in their specialized field.

A study1 of Major League Baseball players found that those who failed at batting (a non-specialized task) performed better at pitching (their specialized task).

Another suggestion from this study is that tasks can be sequenced so that the discomfort and drive generated by unfamiliar tasks can be used to improve performance in the core tasks that follow.

Non-specialized tasks have a greater impact on performance in the specialist’s domain after a setback than after a success.

So, next time you’re asked to do something that’s outside of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to step up. It might just make you better at your core task.

How to apply this idea?

  • As a manager, how can you create opportunities for your employees to experience forced task inferiority?
  • As a specialist, how can you proactively seek out opportunities to step outside of your comfort zone?

This article was inspired by the article: Why Specialists Should Do Some Nonspecialized Tasks in HBR Magazine - November-December 2023 edition.

  1. Striking Out Swinging: Specialist Success Following Forced Task Inferiority by Brittany Bond and Ethan Poskanzer. (Organization Science) ↩︎