Pointless and unreasonable: tasks that spoil work

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Scientific interpretation

Assigning tasks in a company is a management practice that is so common and routine, we rarely question our ways of doing it. It generally doesn’t pose a problem, since employees are hired based on their skills, and their work revolves around these. It gets tricky, however, when employees are assigned tasks that fall outside their expertise or tasks that seem… pointless.

These tasks are called “illegitimate tasks,” because they deviate from the employee’s expected role or area of expertise. They directly affect the employee’s well-being, putting them in an uncomfortable professional situation. Pindek and colleagues (2018) became interested in the relationship between employees’ well-being and managers’ involvement in assigning illegitimate tasks, in a study conducted with engineers in Florida. They found, in particular, that assigning illegitimate tasks leads to dissatisfaction, especially when it was perceived as the result of a poor management decision. What is more, some people showing a hostile attribution bias would be more likely to experience negative emotions towards this kind of task. So how can you identify illegitimate tasks and avoid assigning them?

Authors

MARIE-ÈVE MAJOR, associate professor of ergonomics, Faculty of Human Kinetics, Université de Sherbrooke

Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

MARIE-ÉLISE LABRECQUE, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY:

Well-being

In this study, well-being is defined as the perceptions of an employee’s positive emotions. In this way, when a person feels frustrated, angry or stressed, they sense a decrease in their personal well-being.

Illegitimate tasks

Illegitimate tasks are tasks that are perceived as going against of what is normally expected of an employee in their work. They are divided into two categories: unreasonable tasks and pointless tasks.

Unreasonable tasks are those that require a level of experience and expertise that is mainly superior or inferior to that of the employee to whom the task has been assigned. They also include tasks overseen by unnecessarily restrictive rules.

In this situation, the employee can be assigned a task for which they were not hired or trained. It would be unreasonable, for example, to ask a consultant to do reception tasks. In the same way, tasks can be considered unreasonable when they are assigned to an employee when they are the responsibility of another employee, who is better able to do them: for example, asking a customer service representative to do financial analysis or produce recommendations. Finally, tasks governed by rules that are overly or unnecessarily restrictive can be considered unreasonable. Think, for example, of a receptionist who is asked to wait for clients to arrive without thinking of giving them tasks that can be done at the same time.

Pointless tasks are ineffective tasks or practices that stem, for example, from the whims of managers or the organization. These are tasks that must be done in a certain way for no particular reason.

Also considered pointless are tasks that should never be done or that could have been avoided. Think about forms that need to be filled in but will never be looked at! Task can also be considered pointless because the task itself is pointless or serves no purpose (for example, putting magazines in a waiting room in alphabetical order every morning).

That being said, some tasks can be both unreasonable and pointless to various degrees.

 

Hostile attribution bias (HAB)

This is the tendency some people have to see others as being responsible for unwelcome events that they are facing. People who have a higher level of HAB are more likely to see a task as illegitimate based on at times minor incidents or on slightly questionable aspects of the task. These people are also more likely to believe that their being assigned a task results from a deliberate negative intention.

WHAT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER

Employees are likely to associate illegitimate tasks with bad management practices, AND unreasonable tasks lead to more negative emotions than pointless tasks, especially among people demonstrating a higher level of HAB.

Complete reference

Pindek, S., Demircioğlu, E., Howard, D. J., Eatough, E. M., et Spector, P. E. (2018). Illegitimate tasks are not created equal: Examining the effects of attributions on unreasonable and unnecessary tasks, Work & Stress, 1-16.

A double method

This study was done with 420 employed engineers in Florida, in the United States.

In total, the sample included 78.7% men and 21.3% women.

The average age was 52 years, the average number of years of employment was 12, and the average number of hours worked per week was 45.6.

The study’s originality rests, among other things, on its methodology. The authors chose a double method, namely:

  • a qualitative portion, to better understand employees’ perception regarding illegitimate tasks and their effects. Participants had to answer four open-ended questions intended to gather specific examples of situations where tasks that had been assigned to them were perceived as illegitimate.
  • a quantitative portion, to distinguish between types of illegitimate tasks and identify their mechanisms. Participants had to evaluate, using measurement scales, the processes leading to perceiving an assigned task as illegitimate, considering in a negative way the source of this assignment, and experiencing a negative emotional reaction towards this task.

Is it management’s fault?

Illegitimate tasks

When they are assigned a task that they see as illegitimate, the employee has two choices: accept or refuse. However, accepting such a task generally results in negative emotions that could have an effect on the employee’s well-being, especially if the situation happens regularly.

To obey or not obey?

 

  • Employees generally refuse to do tasks that contravene the law or that they consider unethical.
  • Most employees do unreasonable or pointless tasks that are assigned to them, even if these are not part of their job description.

Negative emotions

  • Assigning an illegitimate task can lead to anger and frustration, even when the employee agrees to do it.
  • Assigning illegitimate tasks can also cause stress, insofar as employees perceive that the resources used to do the unreasonable or pointless tasks do not serve to carry out planned tasks and that this leads to a backlog.

A matter of perception

  • Stress, anger and frustration are all experienced, leading to a decrease in the perception of employees’ individual well-being.
  • If employees perceive that illegitimate tasks are caused by poor management, they are less likely to agree to them than if they are given them by chance.
  • Pointless tasks are often seen as less personal than unreasonable tasks, because they are pointless for everyone and result in fewer negative emotions.
  • Some illegitimate tasks can be received positively, if the employee judges that it is best to do them, for example, or see it as an opportunity to develop new skills.

Unreasonable tasks

Because employees generally attribute them to poor management, unreasonable tasks generate more negative emotions and are more likely to reduce employees’ well-being than pointless tasks.

A matter of perception

 

  • HAB affects the extent of the perception of the illegitimacy of tasks and the appearance of negative emotions.
  • An employee blaming the assigning of illegitimate tasks on negative personal reasons (for example, a manager who wants to harm or overlook them) increases the number of tasks they consider unreasonable.

A matter of personalization

  • The fact that the perceived illegitimacy of this type of task has a more personal aspect means that people would be more likely to attribute them to management in a hostile way.
  • As unreasonable tasks are ones that do not correspond to the area of expertise or the role of the employee who is given them, assigning them generally seems more personal, as it appears deliberate. Employees therefore have a greater tendency to attribute them in a hostile way to management.

WHAT ARE THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THESE FINDINGS?

The results of the study in question highlight new considerations for the daily management of tasks. Here are a few actions to help reduce the perception of the illegitimacy of tasks assigned and their effects on employees’ well-being.

Actions

Examples

Be aware of the different tasks

  • List all the tasks included in the work – both those required by the organization and those that employees assign themselves, including tasks that must be done before an assigned task.

Consider assigned tasks

 

  • Be aware of the possible illegitimacy of assigned tasks. Before assigning a task, it is important to consider whether it is necessary and whether the person who is in the best position to do it is the one you planned to assign it to.
  • Do not overlook the consequences of pointless tasks! Although they are less likely to lead to negative emotions than unreasonable tasks, they can also have negative effects on employees’ well-being and are, we must remember, pointless!

Inform and explain

 

  • Tell employees the reasons why they are assigned certain tasks. It is possible that some tasks that are perceived as illegitimate are necessary. It is important to avoid having them be seen as a personal attack.
  • Depersonalize the assignment of tasks. Because employees are more likely to negatively perceive the assignment of certain tasks based on their relationship with management, it is important to make sure they understand that the assignment of tasks is not personal.

Be open and receptive to suggestions

  • Being aware of how employees perceive tasks can have a positive impact in assigning tasks. Sometimes, employees’ perception is different from that of the manager, and small changes can have major consequences.
  • Creating an atmosphere of openness is a good way to ensure that questions about the relevance of tasks are welcome and to avoid having frustrations pile up.

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Major, M.-E., Fouquet, E., Charbonneau, J. (2018). Pointless and unreasonable: tasks that spoil work. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Pindek, S., Demircioğlu, E., Howard, D. J., Eatough, E. M., et Spector, P. E. (2018). Illegitimate tasks are not created equal: Examining the effects of attributions on unreasonable and unnecessary tasks, Work & Stress, 1-16.

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