Managers: your multitasking does more damage than you imagine

A colleague shared that he once worked for someone who constantly typed email and texts on her smartphone, not only during weekly group meetings but also during his last annual review. There could be no clearer message that 1) the boss was not paying attention to the task at hand and 2) she had little regard for subordinates.

In addition to causing employee resentment, there are other unintended consequences of such behavior. A team of researchers used Microsoft Workplace Analytics to study the behavior of thousands of managers (Fuller, Shikaloff, Cullinan, Harmon, 2018).  One of the key findings, not surprisingly, is that multitasking is epidemic amongst managers. Besides being rude, and not being mentally receptive to what could be critical information, the behavior of these managers has a detrimental ripple effect. Managers who frequently send emails during meetings are 2.2 times more likely to have direct reports who also multitask in meetings (something my colleague sheepishly admitted to doing). Unfortunately, reducing the number of meeting hours does not mitigate the behavior; “managers with 10-15 hours of meetings are just about as likely to multitask as those with over 30 hours of meetings.”

We are tethered to our devices, and it’s difficult to resist the urge to check them. Especially, perhaps, for managers who have multiple and sometimes conflicting “upstream” and “downstream” responsibilities. But not only is this multitasking inspiring imitation, multitaskers set themselves up for subpar performance (Charron, Koechlin, 2010). Our brains function sub-optimally and our performance suffers when we multitask on activities beyond the complexity of, say, simultaneously eating and walking. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans graphically reveal how trying to focus on more than one challenging task forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently – and that’s not ideal

Lower IQ, too???

If angering coworkers and impeded performance aren’t enough to deter managers from multitasking, how does a lower IQ sound? A study of 1,100 workers at a British company found that “multitasking with electronic media caused a greater decrease in IQ than smoking pot or losing a night's sleep” (Sollisch, 2010). This study alone should convince everyone to leave their phones off the table during a meeting.

You may think you’re just fine checking email and answering texts while in a meeting. And you might be, if you’re part of the elite two percent of “supertaskers” who can effectively multitask (Strayer, Watson, 2012). You’re lucky. Your brain actually exhibits different patterns of neural activation when multitasking than the rest of us

How to decrease multitasking

What are the remaining 98 percent of us to do? Thankfully, curbing one’s tendency to multitask is not out of reach. Being present and addressing one task at a time is like any other skill. The more you work at it, the better you’ll get. A “device-free” practice is a great start. Begin by intentionally removing the temptation, quite difficult at first but much easier to do with practice.


Charron, Sylvain & Koechlin, Etienne (2010). Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes. Science, 328, 360-363.

Fuller, Ryan, Shikaloff, Nina, Cullinan & Harmon, Shani (2018). If You Multitask During Meetings, Your Team Will, Too. Harvard Business Review, January 25.

Sollisch, Jim (2010). Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

Strayer, David L. & Watson, James M (2012). Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, 23, 22-29.


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