The Downside of Multitasking


One of the long-standing assumptions about leadership in today’s wired and global economy is the critical importance of multitasking.  With information coming at us through email, RSS, Twitter, smart phones and the like, the ability to perform multiple actions at once, quickly prioritizing tasks and making decisions, would seem to be an important contributor to leadership success.  However, the more this vaunted “skill” comes under scrutiny, the more doubts there are about the correlation between multitasking and good leadership.

The most recent assault comes from a study published by Stanford University that discovered multitaskers are not better than unitaskers.  Writing about multitaskers in New York Times, Ruth Pennebaker recently summed it up:

They don’t focus as well as non-multitaskers. They’re more distractible. They’re weaker at shifting from one task to another and at organizing information. They are, as a matter of fact, worse at multitasking than people who don’t ordinarily multitask.

This research echoes my own experience with multitasking – namely that it is difficult if not impossible to do effectively.  In addition to being incompetent, many multitaskers run the risk of alienating their peers and subordinates.  Daniel Goleman and others have demonstrated the importance of emotional intelligence in a leader.  One of the critical components of emotional intelligence is the ability to listen to others and “be present.”  It is very difficult to be present for your employees and customers when you’re talking on the phone while checking email at the same time.

With the growing popularity and ubiquity of technology, the critical leadership skill that is missing today is the ability to concentrate on one task and to authentically be present to those around you.  I believe it is easier to slip into reactive multitasking mode then it is to have the presence of mind to block out what is not important and to focus on the emotional leadership skills that allow us to collaborate with others and inspire employees to do their best.

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