Talent development is an obvious ingredient in any organization’s success. But employees also have jobs to do and deadlines to hit. Which can explain why workplace learning can get neglected and pushed to the bottom of to-do lists.

Think about using importance and urgency as the primary factors in prioritizing tasks. We’d end up with four categories: Urgent Important Tasks, Urgent Unimportant Tasks, Non-Urgent Important Tasks and Non-Urgent Unimportant Tasks.

What category does workplace learning end up in? Often, it’s Non-Urgent Important. And as such, it gets put off until tomorrow for tasks with more urgency.

What can managers and organizations do to keep it a priority? A recent study conducted at Johns Hopkins University provides some answers.

The research

A team of researchers conducted a series of experiments to examine how people prioritize tasks. Specifically, they were curious about how a sense of urgency might affect people’s decision making when deciding between options.

In one study, researchers presented 400 participants with a choice between two typing challenges, each lasting only three minutes. The activity was exactly the same, but there were two key differences.

Task One had to be completed within a five-minute window and offered a chance at a $20 gift card. Task Two could be completed any time within a 50-minute window and offered a chance at a $25 gift card.

Rationally, the choice is clear – 25 is greater than 20. But that’s not what happened. After a few rounds of choosing between the two tasks, 59% of participants chose Task One – the option offering a chance at less money.

Now, why would so many people choose the worse option? To the researchers, the answer was clear: Urgency. Task One had a much shorter window (five minutes), creating a feeling of expiration, which engendered a sense of urgency. Participants were motivated by the ticking clock.

The researchers call this irrational psychological preference the urgency effect.

How we prioritize

The researchers explain the urgency effect like this: “People may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion. Urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs….”

Let’s break down these ideas into three important points.

  1. According to this study and past research, urgent tasks grab our attention. Even if its unimportant, a task with a short deadline stimulates us to act.
  2. Important tasks are often more complex and, therefore, are perceived as more difficult  — even if they’re not. We’re tempted to do the easy thing instead of the hard thing.
  3. The reward or payoff from completing an urgent task is felt immediately, while working on an important, longer task will take much longer to pay off – if it ever does.

This effect helps explain why, in the real world, Urgent Non-Important Tasks often trump Non-Urgent Important Tasks. What’s worse, the study found that busy people are even more likely to fall prey to the urgency effect. So, for example, your busy employees may opt to spend 30 minutes answering unimportant emails rather than, say, working on a new skill.

Recommendations

In light of the urgency effect, how can managers and learning organizations keep workplace learning near the top of the priority list? Here are some recommendations based on the research.

Make learning easy.

Looking at the scope of a workplace-learning program can be intimidating. But learning experiences don’t need to be time intensive. For example, learners can watch a 10-minute e-learning video or read a short article during a small fraction of their workday. There may be some follow-up activities to ensure learners retain what they’ve learned, but devoting just an hour a week to training can add up to some big wins.

Celebrate small wins.

While each employee may have a annual learning plan, there are a lot of new skills and performance improvements earned incrementally along the way that can be recognized and celebrated.

Focus on outcomes.

Perhaps most important, the research suggests that focusing on the outcomes of a meaningful task can help negate the urgency effect. So when talking about training, be sure to talk about the rewards or benefits. They could be simply improvements in job performance, opportunities for a promotion or the potential of increased pay – whatever positive outcomes are appropriate for your situation. Take the focus off of the perceived challenges and put the spotlight on the benefits.


Source: Zhu, M., et al. (2018). The mere urgency effect. Journal of Consumer Research. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucy008

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