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How Many Tasks Can You Handle?

Ever notice how some of your employees have a variety of tasks they’re trying to accomplish, and others like to focus their attention on one task at a time? Then there’s a third group of employees who fall in between the other two groups—not too many tasks, yet enough to make them feel purposeful. All three types can be very productive for an organization as long as the tasks get completed.

Let’s take a look at each type of employee. Our first group is composed of individuals who like variety and plenty of tasks, as long as they can keep the end goal in sight: task completion. What organization wouldn’t want this type of employee? Problems can arise, however, when the employee reaches the overload point. Issues can also arise when you, the boss, think you know what amount of work the employee can handle, so you keep piling it on, yet the employee has personally reached his or her limit.

What can then happen is total chaos. The employee decides what needs to get accomplished first, second, and third, yet this may not be in the best interests of the organization. The common phrase “when you need something done, give it to a busy person” does not always work. A little tip when assigning tasks: written communication works best for most employees. Written communication gives employees something to refer back to for eliminating confusion.

Our second group of employees are the ones who like to focus their attention on only one task at a time. These focused individuals are generally very thorough and when a high level of concentration is needed for task accomplishment, they’re your go-to employees. Problems can arise when you need to change a task or give this employee unexpected work assignments. Employees like this can resist these changes or tasks that need to be re-tooled, because they are so focused on filling your previous requests.

The third type of employee falls in between the other two types. These employees like a variety of tasks and like to focus their attention, but not to the extreme. Their concentration level allows them to resist distractions and to focus their attention on the tasks at hand. These individuals like a minimum level of unexpected change; they can handle it, but they don’t like it. They like to finish what they have started and will show stress behavior if this is not allowed. Care should be taken with these employees that they don’t get too much “routine” work, and not too much abrupt or unexpected change to their workday.

A couple of issues to be aware of: sometimes we find employees trying to take on the same number of work tasks as the busiest person in the organization. This can be counterproductive, since the employees may be overloading themselves and the company will not be getting projects completed efficiently.

An employee type to be wary of is the non-finisher! These are the individuals who start project after project and never finish anything. I once worked with a CEO who wanted the newest software for his operations. His problem? Before IT could get the current software installed and implemented, the CEO had moved on and bought newer software.

So, how do we identify these employees to get maximum performance? One way is to simply observe the employee behavior with regard to their assigned tasks. If the employee seems restless and always looking for or even volunteering for additional assignments, you’ve got the first type of employee. A second way to identify is to ask the employee. During your weekly one-on-ones or during a quarterly evaluation, ask the employees what they think of their workload. Don’t be surprised if you get: “I’m a little overwhelmed at the moment” or “I could handle more.” Research shows that on average, your employees admit to being used only to 40 percent of their capacity. Assessments have come a long way in the last few years, and some can do a very accurate job of identifying employees’ behaviors and their comfort level with the number of tasks they’re comfortable handling.

Set your employees up for success. Give them the correct number of tasks and let them do the outstanding work they’re capable of doing. After you have identified which type of employees you have, and their ability level, this is truly a win-win. The employees are engaged and productive and the organization benefits from their superior performance. Happy employees always outperform those who are neutral or stressed-out.

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