Job Description: Multi-task AND Pay attention to detail?

My daughter was applying for a job the other day and she asked me to review her letter, so of course, I asked to see what the job posting was asking for. Some of the skills that were required were as follows:

  • Must have ability to multi-task
  • Must be able to communicate effectively
  • Must demonstrate attention to detail

Pretty standard of many job postings…and then it occurred to me…how on earth can anyone multi-task, be an effective communicator AND pay attention to detail?

Isn’t that a bit of a dichotomy? I mean, really…if you are multi-tasking; you are NOT giving attention to detail. Doesn’t one skill require you to do a multitude of tasks simultaneously, while the other means you need to be present?

I was the ‘queen’ of multi-tasking (many women are, by the way) and for years I thought I was so much more efficient as a result. I have since come to believe that it’s a rather ineffective way of doing things and I’m actually surprised by how many jobs still list it as a desirable skill.

Think about it…when a person is doing a multitude of different things at once, the error rate goes up significantly; he probably has the attention span of a gnat; and it’s highly unlikely that he is communicating ‘effectively’ because his mind isn’t processing what being said or asked of him clearly…consequently, it’s highly unlikely that a great deal of attention is being given to detail.

The more I thought about this, the more I started to consider the consequences of multi-tasking and funnily enough, I was actually falling into my old habit of multi-tasking the other night when I was getting dinner ready.  I was talking on the phone; running back and forth to the barbeque slapping barbeque sauce on the ribs; chopping the lettuce for the salad; grating the cheese; making the dressing; and I’m pretty sure I was also writing a couple of envelopes out for some cards I was sending in the mail. 

So, fast forward – we’re sitting down to dinner and I take a bite out of my salad – it was Caesar salad and it’s one of my favourite recipes. All of a sudden, I get this sharp taste in my mouth as if I’d eaten a kosher dill pickle and I realize – I put in a double dose of vinegar. Ugh!  At first it didn’t immediately register with me because I only vaguely remember even making the dressing because I was so busy doing a multitude of other things and I wasn’t paying attention to detail.

Much of what I think is missing in our fast-paced world today is the attention to detail that so many of us now crave. Consumers today say they want better quality products and service and yet I’m wondering how we can get that when we ask employees to multi-task. No wonder so much of what we buy today falls apart in short order – no wonder we can go into a restaurant and sit for 20 minutes before being served or even acknowledged in some cases – or we stand in a lobby waiting to book into a hotel while the desk clerk is dealing with a delivery fellow, answering the phone and giving instructions to the bellman.

No, I am not convinced that multi-tasking is quite the skill that it’s cracked up to be…so delete that from the job please…I’ll take the attention to detail.

Check out this research: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html

http://asia.cnet.com/crave/2009/08/26/new-research-shows-multitasking-is-counter-productive/

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9 Responses to Job Description: Multi-task AND Pay attention to detail?

  1. David Gabor says:

    Gosh, the way you put it made me stop dead in my tracks. The ability to multi task has been my greatest asset and detractor all at the same time. From around 9:00 am until 5:00 pm it so very difficult to get much done because of the calls, questions and interruptions. As a result, I often come to work early so that I can accomplish. Sadly, I also stay late so that I can accomplish.

    Corporate re-engineering requires that we rethink how to get the work done without undermining accuracy. Attention to detail is inconsistent with the ability to multitask. At the same time, we do need to be willing to accept new challenges and to be able to handle multiple projects at the same time.

    Now, back to that salad…..I use the raw egg as anything else just doesn’t do. Yes, salt and garlic and mix in the vinegar, oil, dijon, worcestershire sauce, raw egg, tobasco and anchovies. Grated parmesan cheese croutons and romaine lettuce.

    • hrscoops says:

      Yes…there are times that we need to multi-task and I know we all do (in fact…I often get frustrated with those who can’t) but I guess it just struck me as odd in the sense that these skill set requirements were listed one after the other.

      By the way, sounds like we make the same dressing…mmmm good

  2. David Gabor says:

    I certainly agree with your take on it. Maybe there is a lesson in there for those who write job descriptions. Perhaps they have to rethink the meaning of the phrase “multi-task.” Perhaps a better understanding of the distinction between multi-task and the ability to handle multiple duties capably is critical.

  3. hrscoops says:

    Hello again David
    Here is some research on the topic, which just solidifies my view on the value of multi-tasking (or should I say…non-value)?
    http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Turn-Their-Attention/63746/
    There is other research out there as well; but this one is fairly recent and clear.

  4. John Prpich says:

    It’s an interesting dilemma, perhaps I can share another perspective. When I see those types of job postings I often ask myself one of these questions:
    *Is this just some type of cry for help from the employer, subtext, we need to improve our productivity and can’t see to find the right individuals
    *Someone wrote the job description and didn’t understand the dichotomy in their request
    *As is typical of job descriptions, an employer is looking for individuals who can walk on water, I’ve seen multitudes of job descriptions like this in the last few years

    What’s even more unusual is asking for individuals to have certain competencies and then not being able to adequately assess their level of competence in those critical areas, quite the paradox.

  5. Thanks for a great post Kellie.
    Being a proud multi-tasker, I too was shocked by the research that showed that multi-taskers actually perform worse than uni-taskers. The researchers studied multi-taskers to better understand what it was about these people that made them so hightly skilled. They were surprised to find that they were not as efficient as everyone thought. Here is the blog I wrote: http://www.rethinkingyourwork.com/2009/09/04/are-multitaskers-really-more-efficient/

    Val Kinjerski, PhD
    Rethinking Your Work

    • hrscoops says:

      Thanks for your link! I really appreciate you adding that and you will most definitely be one of the links that I put onto my web site. I was kind of surprised by the research as well but one thing I have noticed a LOT lately, is how distracted so many people seem to be. That’s what kind of started me to think about the value of multi-tasking (or non-value). I too have been a huge multi-tasker all my life and I’m trying very hard to break that. It’s not easy!

  6. Amelia Chan says:

    What a great observation from Kelly and interesting insights from both David and John. I agree that life (in general) and we (as individuals) often deal with behavior that is dichotomous or just contradictory. As a society, we are moving so quickly and bombarded with some much noise that it is overwhelming and as individuals, we receive and put upon ourselves, expectations that are increasingly unrealistic. Is it a wonder that we are all so stressed and working on autopilot to survive?

    I think each of us needs to evaluate our priorities realistically and refocus our energies on what we want to achieve. Whether it is balancing life choices or forging full steam ahead on a particular professional goal, we just need to take the time to understand what we want.

    From an HR perspective, I agree that job descriptions need to be thought out and written with clarity — is it that the writer doesn’t understand the role, is expecting too much or simply on auto-pilot and using the typical requirement phrases without thinking it through? Unfortunately, what happens with these unrealistic or everything under-the-kitchen-sink requirements is that the posting is setting all parties up for failure….this may be the ideal candidate but he/she doesn’t exist. You get candidates who will try to be everything because the employer is asking for everything. How confused are we?

    From a business strategy perspective, this just leads to confusion. The most profitability companies have a niche and focus on what they do best. They usually don’t need to provide all products or the full service chain to their customers…and if they did, they may not be that good at every part of it. Having a clear target market and understanding its product/service is what separates the good companies (as well as the employers) from the mediocre.

    When you pay attention to these details, you are much better equipped to then multi-task…if necessary.

  7. Dieter Thoma says:

    In earlier time we where talking about time management and setting priorities. A manager who is able to set priorities and cordinate his schedule can accomplish way more than a person who tries to do all at once.

    Multitasking, I personaly think is a word that was created, to discribe that managing you schedule AND in the same time the priorities for all the tasks came closer together due to the new and faster devices we have available in modern business.

    From Filofax to Blackberry that is syncronised with your outlook and so on. Decisions that could take days, years ago, have to be done in minutes or right away. So this preassure that is generated with these means of communication is what makes it necessary to stay ahead of the game in all tasks; juggle all balls at the same time?

    A simple rule of thumb, that i learned from a former colleague: “If you can answer it in two minutes, do it – if not, prioritize it. And this rule really works fine and enables you to manage your time than be managed by floods of emails comming in.

    I do not multitask. But i am managing my schedule AND my priorities.

    Another thing that i want you to consider: “Why everybody who works a day from home, tells you after he comes back the next day to the office, how much more he could accomplish at home?”

    Because he had to multitask or because he could concentrate on the tasks at hand?

    Have a great day at work.

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