Why You Shouldn’t Believe Employees Who Say They Can Multi-task

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Why You Shouldn’t Believe Employees Who Say They Can Multi-task

Do you find yourself constantly distracted? Your attention constantly divided, jumping from one task to another?  Does every day feel like you’ve been really busy but not really productive?

Who Multi-tasks…and how?

The hustle and bustle of everyday life have become a regular occurrence for many people – so much so that we have embraced a word to describe our efforts to respond to the many pressing demands on our time: multitasking. Multitasking has become so invasive in our lives that that the youngest generations are defined by it and employers idolize workers who do it.

Used for decades to describe the abilities of computers, multitasking is now considered a required skill for peak job performance.  It is shorthand for trying to get many things done in the least amount of time possible.

According to a recent study on “Who Multi-Tasks and Why?“:

People are not always content doing one thing at a time. Frequently, they multi-task, that is, they engage in multiple tasks aimed at attaining multiple goals simultaneously. Multi-tasking involves concurrent performance of two or more functionally independent tasks with each of the tasks having unique goals involving distinct stimuli (or stimulus attributes), mental transformation, and response outputs.

Multi-tasking has its benefits. It enables people to achieve more goals and to experience more activities. However, engaging in multiple attention demanding tasks simultaneously may be cognitively and physically taxing. Decision theory suggests that people should multi-task when they are good at it and expect to benefit from it. And there’s the rub.  The study also revealed that the people who describe themselves as good at multi-tasking are often not so good.

A significant finding in the research dispelled the notion that people multi-task because they are good at it. Chronically high multi-taskers were more readily distracted by irrelevant external stimuli. The persons who most frequently multi-task may be those who are the least cognitively equipped to effectively carry out multiple tasks simultaneously. Previous research found that high chronic multi-taskers lack some of the basic cognitive skills necessary for effective multi-tasking. This is critically important because candidates and employees who describe themselves as multi-taskers might be overvaluing their ability to get results.  Yes, they may like to be involved in many activities, exude energy, and are always busy. But they are not necessarily effective or productive.  Activity alone does not always result in positive outcomes.

So which people are good at it?  And is it possible that personality tests can help employers select employees who have the ability to multi-task, not just the energy to engage in multiple activities simultaneously?

Recent studies show that the most effective and efficient multi-taskers should be those who are able to exercise a high level of executive control. Attention is central to multi-tasking because the information and goals relevant to one task must be actively maintained while other tasks are performed. Therefore individuals wanting to multi-task must have the mental ability to process a lot of information and the self-control to avoid distractions and impulsivity.

When individuals believe that they are capable of multi-tasking successfully, they are likely more apt to take on multiple tasks simultaneously. But self-beliefs of multi-tasking ability and actual multi-tasking ability may not always work hand in hand to influence decision making. Beliefs about the self have been found to be only weakly correlated with actual abilities and traits. This disconnect exists, in part, because people overestimate their personal qualities.

For example, research has shown that most people perceive themselves to be more physically attractive than average, better drivers than average, and better leaders than average despite the obvious truth that most people are average on these dimensions. These findings suggest that people may generally overestimate their ability to multi-task relative to others and that the persons who may be most willing to engage in multiple attention demanding tasks are those who are the most overconfident about their capabilities.

One personality trait that has shown to be been strongly associated with the approach and avoidance orientations that may affect the willingness to multi-task is impulsivity (quick to decide, less cautious).

Impulsivity is a personality trait included in each ASSESS report.

Impulsivity is commonly defined a “as a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions.” Highly impulsive individuals may have a diminished capacity to block out distractions and focus on a primary task than individuals low in impulsivity. Thus, impulsive individuals may take on multiple tasks because they are more strongly attracted to the rewards afforded by multi-tasking. They may also be more prone to distractions. Studies have shown that impulsive individuals are generally more reward oriented and more responsive to goals. At the same time, impulsive individuals are more apt to engage in risky behavior.

Another personality trait that may be associated with multi-tasking, according to the study, is sensation seeking. People may choose to multi-task because it is more interesting and challenging, and less boring than performing a singular task. In some instances, they may take on several tasks for the sheer enjoyment of it, even if their overall productivity suffers.

Conversely, people may refrain from multi-tasking because of the risks and costs associated with taking on too much. Therefore a high energy person who enjoys multi-tasking, but whose decision-making process tends to the cautious side, may in fact avoid multi-tasking for the mere sense of busyness and enjoyment.

Another personality trait associated with multi-tasking might be emotional stability, or the ability to cope with stress.

Employees with low self-control may say or do things they later regret

Expressiveness, excitability, or low self-control might be perceived as a positive trait by some. They might see enthusiasm, engagement, and even passion.  But when combined with impulsivity the result could be activity, not ability. An easily excitable employee might “switch gears” frequently without considering the negative consequences or impact on productivity.

Finally, general mental abilities (or cognitive skills) might impact one’s ability to multi-task. Interestingly, the persons who chronically multi-task are not those who are the most capable of multi-tasking effectively. Individuals with a high level of executive control should be able to minimize the distractions and goal conflicts that are disruptive to task switching and multi-task performance. At the same time, they should be able to minimize the distractions and competing goals that diminish singular task focus and that contribute to secondary task involvement.

Like many other skills and abilities, multi-tasking cannot be predicted by a resume or one scale on a single test.  Success Performance Solutions are experts in employee and candidate assessment from basic skills like typing and data entry to leadership. Call us at 800-803-4303 or email me at iwolfe@super-solutions.com to learn more about testing for multi-tasking and other required job skills.

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