Corporate Leadership: Losing focus

My thanks this month to Vistage/TEC resource Dave Crenshaw who has snuffed out the very popular management myths associated with multi-tasking.

Do you remember this challenge that some companies used to give to a prospective manager? The task was to sort through a pile of in-basket material. A consultant keeps time, while paying attention to the manager’s skills at staying organized while prioritizing. It was designed to measure just how efficient would you be in a new position with more responsibility.

It’s no secret that this technique wasn’t very popular among management experts. In many respects, multi-tasking isn’t either.

Multi-tasking myths

So what’s the perceived value of multitasking? From our experience at TEC, and Crenshaw’s comments, it appears that:

•    Multi-taskers are sharp and smart because they do more than one thing simultaneously.

•    They set an example for others to be more productive.

•    They exemplify decisiveness.

•    By definition, they’re efficient.

Then reality steps in. These are four myths because multi-tasking is actually more like multi-gasping.

Employees with attention deficit disorder can move rapidly from one thought process to another, almost spontaneously. What can’t be assured is the quality of the action they’ve taken along the way.

If productivity isn’t being measured, it’s an assumption, not a fact. Productivity takes focus, and it doesn’t stop there. Decisiveness is the result of carefully evaluating the data at hand, and then reaching a decision that is unequivocal. It is not about issue-switching, which characterizes multi-tasking to a fault.

If you can work fast but make errors in the process, you’re really just “efficiently inefficient.” There’s no documentation that multi-tasking is the correct path to efficiency.

The high price of multi-tasking

Crenshaw rightfully points out that we cannot, neurologically, do two things at the same time. Basically, a multi-tasker has to switch back and forth. He points out that switching comes with a high price such as stress, anxiety, a short attention span, and productivity and focus problems.

In other words, while not a proven fact in the medical literature, we might very well hypothesize that multi-tasking may have hidden health costs. We know that stress and anxiety elevate blood pressure and produce other negative side effects. Common sense suggests that the multi-tasker may be more vulnerable in these areas than we think.

If you’re an admitted task-switcher, what steps can you take to reduce the impulse to do so? Here are seven tips:

1.    Take control over the personal technology devices that have a tendency to drive your day. Try turning off your cell phone and email notification for a couple hours each day. Create some silence in your personal environment.

2.    Use time-tested time management principles to organize your approach to work each day. Prioritize your daily activities and events and stick to your priorities.

3.  Rather than being available to anyone at the drop of a hat, actually encourage people to schedule appointments with you at certain convenient times of the day.  Require an agenda from them (and yourself).

4.  Consider stating on your voicemail when, specifically, you will be checking it (as opposed to “I check my voicemail frequently”). This sets clear expectations for others who want to contact you. It also discourages you from jumping every time your cell phone beeps because there’s a voicemail message.

5.    Consider setting a regular time and place to meet with your key business contacts within the company. In most cases, 30 minutes two or three times a week per person will suffice.

6.    Try to avoid jumping from one file to another on your computer, especially when they’re unrelated.

7.    Task-switching can damage your relationship with people. It lets them know that the exchange is on your agenda, not theirs. It also shows you’re impatient. It’s much better to stay in the moment and remain focused on their issues.

How to help your employees

A troubling concern for supervisors is how to deal with subordinates who are lost in a multi-tasking loop and don’t realize it. There aren’t many performance appraisals I’ve seen that even deal with the subject. Here are some suggestions:

•    Have a weekly sit-down with each subordinate to briefly review priorities for the week. The idea is to keep them mentally focused and, therefore, less likely to jump from one activity to another.

•    Include the subject of multi-tasking in your performance reviews. Discuss its negative implications for the business.

•    When you see evidence of employees switching tasks, take the time to document it, and discuss it with your subordinate as early as possible.

A more delicate subject is how to deal with a boss who is multi-tasking and is either ignorant or proud of it. The only way you can truly confront the subject is to talk in terms of how it affects you and your performance. This isn’t easy. But sometimes simple awareness is all that’s needed to change troublesome behavior.

The other day at a local area Milwaukee restaurant, I saw a woman having dinner with her husband and three children. She was pounding away on her Blackberry while trying to carry on a conversation with them. You could see the frustration on her husband’s face.

The point is that multi-tasking can create problems at home, too. This is a sad commentary because it denigrates the importance of personal relationships.

My cell phone is ringing, and I thought it was off.

Never mind.

I’ll end this month’s article by staying focused. Until next month, you stay focused too.


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