Multi-tasking may benefit managers more than employees

Did you make a New Year resolution to be more organised and productive?

Was this partly driven by watching lots of inspiring YouTube videos and read blog posts during the Christmas break?

You know what I’m talking about. Those bloggers and vloggers who use phrases like ‘hustle’ and ‘grind’ and who walk, talk, Tweet, Snapchat, reply to email and film videos all at the same time?

This apparent ability to do many things at the same time and do them well may not be all it’s cracked up to be, however.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology explored multi-tasking through the lens of power. The researchers were particularly interested in hierarchical power and wanted to test whether the level of power someone holds impacts their ability to multi-task or switch between tasks, suggesting that,

“power facilitates and powerlessness hinders”

The research

High job demands combined with low levels of autonomy and control can impact well-being, health and in turn, productivity. Some research suggests that powerlessness can impact the ability to plan and deliver tasks; and other research has found powerlessness can impact ability to negotiate effectively.

Considering that the average time employees spend on one, continuous uninterrupted piece of work before having to switch to another is only about 10.5 minutes, it comes as no surprise that performance and productivity can be hampered. If interruptions come from a person’s manager, or higher, then the idea that powerlessness can impact performance resulting from multi-tasking or task-switching is an interesting one.

The researchers conducted three studies.

STUDY ONE focused on the self-reported ability to focus whilst multi-tasking. There were 49 participants (23 managers, 18 direct reports), who answered questionnaires which measured ability to focus and shift attention, as well as plan and make decisions when facing multiple demands.

STUDY TWO focused on speed and accuracy when dual-tasking (working on more than one task at the same time). There were 60 participants all from a European university who were randomly assigned power or powerlessness roles. Before completing tasks, participants had to write a narrative essay about when they felt powerful or powerless. Following this, they then completed auditory and visual tasks.

STUDY THREE focused on on task-switching, between a letters-focused task and a numbers-focused task. The same participants from study two were used. Following tasks, participants completed mood scales and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory.

As the participant sizes were small for the three studies, the researchers also carried out a meta-analysis to add depth to their findings.

The findings

STUDY ONE found that managers were more easily able to balance their attention between multiple tasks. They were also able to implement multiple plans and decisions. Non-managers tended to struggle to focus when working on many different tasks.

STUDY TWO found that those assigned to power roles felt more control over the tasks and they were also faster at completing the visual task. Those assigned to powerless roles had less of the working-memory capacity needed in order to multi-task. There was no discernible difference in their performance between the visual and listening tasks.

STUDY THREE found that the powerful felt more in control. Interestingly, reaction time had the same impact for both powerful and powerless when switching between tasks. However, the error rate due to task-switching was higher for the powerless. The researchers found that results were not driven by mood or anxiety.

Implications and solutions

Power needn’t be so detrimental to performance. David McClelland and David Burnham wrote a great article called Power is the great motivator. They say,

“…institutional managers are interested above all in power. Recognizing that you get things done inside organizations only if you can influence the people around you, they focus on building power through influence rather than through their own individual achievement. People in this third group are the most effective, and their direct reports have a greater sense of responsibility, see organizational goals more clearly, and exhibit more team spirit.”

With this in mind, here are some practical things to help organisations support employees in multi-tasking:

  1. Help managers understand the impact their power role has: The higher up a person goes the more impact and influence they are likely to have on those further down in the organisation. This is particularly the case in overly hierarchical organisations. Reflecting on their impact can be one way for managers and leaders to understand the impact they have on those around them. 360-degree feedback is an effective way of doing this. Another is for line managers to regularly ask their staff how they, as the manager, have helped or hindered them. This is a practice I got in to as a manager and it meant that I became more mindful as to whether I interrupted staff in what they were doing. That open, two-way dialogue can go a long way in working through the impact of power on employee performance.
  2. Make it acceptable to switch off from email: This is easier, to some extent, for senior executives who tend to have a personal assistant to gate-keep and triage email interruptions. This won’t be the case for non-managers. By making it okay to switch off email at certain points, your organisation could improve individual and team performance as it will free people up to focus on their work. For some organisations, making it a norm (or rule) to switch off email say on a Friday morning, means that explicit permission is given for people to not have to check or respond to email.
  3. Create quiet spaces for focused work: As more organisations move to open office environments, this can make it tough to concentrate. It can also make interruptions and multi-tasking more likely. By creating quiet rooms that people can go and work in, away from phone, email and people interruptions, means you are giving a bit more control to people in how they get their work done. Alternatively, allowing people to work from home to focus on specific tasks or projects can be another way to do this. However, this requires managers to trust their staff. I still come across too many managers who require presenteeism – i.e. that their staff need to be in the office, in front of them, otherwise they are ‘just not working’.
  4. For planned tasks, give employees more control over the ‘how’: It’s unrealistic to completely escape the curse of interruptions and hence, the need to multi-task or task-switch. However, you can off-set the impact to some degree by giving your staff freedom and autonomy in how they carry out planned tasks. For example, in a goal-setting discussion for the year, you can ask the person their ideas for how they might best go about achieving the goal. As long as you are clear on what success looks like, how the person goes about it should be down to them. This gives them some power back and hence, better performance.
  5. Develop multi-tasking and task-switching muscle: We are now in an always-on, hyper-connected, super digital world. It’s unrealistic to expect that there will never be interruptions and requirements to task-switch or multi-task. Therefore, developing employee and manager skills around focus, mindfulness and prioritising can go some way to off-setting the negative effects. Emotional intelligence is an important factor in developing these skills. Journalling can be a good way to build these skills and could enhance any development activity that takes place. In study two of the research, those who wrote about when they felt powerful performed better. Therefore, regularly writing about when you felt in control at work could go some way to developing the optimum mind-set to cope with conflicting demands and performance during those times.

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