Task Selection and Workload: A Focus on Completing Easy Tasks Hurts Long-Term Performance

by Diwas S. KC, Bradley R. Staats, Maryam Kouchaki, and Francesca Gino

Overview — Employees facing increased workloads usually tackle easier tasks first. This study tests the performance implications of such prioritization. Findings show that it happens because people feel positive emotions after task completion, yet it could hurt long-term performance. Workloads could be structured to help employee development as well as organizational performance.

Author Abstract

How individuals manage, organize, and complete their tasks is central to operations management. Recent research in operations focuses on how under conditions of increasing workload individuals can increase their service time, up to a point, in order to complete work more quickly. As the number of tasks increases, however, workers may also manage their workload by a different process – task selection. Drawing on research on workload, individual discretion, and behavioral decision making we theorize and then test that under conditions of increased workload individuals may choose to complete easier tasks in order to manage their load. We label this behavior Task Completion Bias (TCB). Using two years of data from a hospital emergency department we find support for TCB and also show that it improves short- term productivity. However, although it improves performance in the short-term we find that an overreliance on this task selection strategy hurts performance – as measured both by speed and revenue – in the long run. We then turn to the lab to replicate conceptually the task selection effect and show that it occurs due to the positive feelings individuals get from task completion. These findings provide an alternative mechanism for the workload-speedup effect from the literature. We also discuss implications for both research and the practice of operations in building systems to help people succeed in both the short and long run.

Paper Information