Tue | Aug 11, 2020

How women might solve corporations' productivity problems

Published:Sunday | February 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Sunday Business Columnist

A few weeks ago, Jamaicans woke up to a surprise announcement: We have the highest percentage of female managers in the world.

While this certainly has social ramifications, it also means that we can leverage the power that women possess to solve our productivity problems.

However, the connection isn't as simple as it seems. People often say that women are better at multitasking than men. Unfortunately, this is an oft repeated, but incorrect myth.

The confusion lies in the very definition of the word. Sometimes we use the term 'multitasking' to refer to the juggling act that ambitious professionals must do to balance multiple roles, projects and responsibilities. Brigid Shulte, the author of Overwhelmed, shared with me in a recent interview that women often assume the responsibilities of managing the home in addition to their jobs.

This isn't real multitasking - it's multi-project management.

Cognitive multitasking, which involves repeatedly switching one's attention from one task to another, is where the modern challenge lies.

Fuelled by new technology, we believe that by checking email in meetings, sending messages in the middle of conversations, and texting while driving are signs of being truly productive. Even worse, research shows that those who think they are better at doing two demanding tasks at the same time are fooling themselves - they are actually worse.


Fact: our brains are hardwired for single-tasking, in which the best results come from being focused. Studies have shown that when we are forced to multitask in response to stimuli like a constant influx of email, our IQ drops by 10 points. Furthermore, academic success has been linked to an individual's ability to reduce distractions, doing the hard work needed to complete complex tasks.

Many of us are confused about the difference between the two kinds of multitasking, a fact I notice in my work with companies. As a result, employees don't know how to be productive. In the absence of proper training, they mimic others in an attempt to get more done.

Given the fact that there are more female managers, they are more likely to be copying a woman than a man.

The good news is that there are also studies showing that women are better time managers. While time itself cannot be managed, the research reveals that women are more at effective creating "time demands" and keeping them alive over long periods of time. A time demand is an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future.

Where does this ability come from? Studies show that women, and men, teach themselves critical skills as adolescents, and faithfully continue them as adults. This ability sets them apart from their peers who might be just as intelligent, but don't learn how to be productive. If you can't recall doing so, that's normal.

Although it's not clear why teenage girls are able to pull this off, a good question to ask is: How can we in Jamaica use our situation to benefit our companies?

If you are a woman, there are three ways to start.

First, understand what multitasking really means. Distinguish between managing multiple roles or projects and cognitive multitasking. Teach others around you the pitfalls of those who develop the habit of switching their attention from one task to another.

Explain the cost of 'switch-tasking': The small increment of time that's lost when they swap one task for another. Be prepared to explain the difference over and over again until it becomes a widely understood fact.

Second, stop claiming that women are better at multitasking. It's a confusing message that implies that this habit is somehow better. Instead, use facts and data. Explain that women are better at managing time demands, and tend to teach themselves better habits that serve them later in life.

Encourage others to do the same, even as you personally cut out behaviours such as pretending to listen while doing other tasks.

Third, give more time-based feedback. In her recent book, The NonVerbal Advantage, Dr Carol Kinsey Goman showed that women have a capacity to give better feedback than men. They are better at picking up non-verbal cues, listening and showing empathy.

Use these skills to step in and intervene. Coach others in ways to be productive by helping them see how they compare to world-class standards.

Remember, many of your colleagues want to improve, but simply don't know how. At the same time, cut out the blighs given away so freely: they only reinforce low standards.

On the face of it, Jamaica should be poised to improve its productivity because we have more female managers who tend to be armed with better time demand-management skills. It may happen, but it will take the awareness, commitment and skills of one empowered woman at a time.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity'. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.