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What does it mean to "task" someone?

ankush981 profile image Ankush Thakur ・1 min read

Maybe it's a cultural difference thing, but I really don't get what it means to "task" someone and why it might offend them.

Here's the context: I was listening to a podcast that was analyzing developer careers, roles, and all that. One point of discussion was that the person who gets promoted as a manager has a hard time fulfilling his KRAs because nobody likes to be "tasked". This becomes especially bad when the manager has less technical experience (and worse, if younger) than the people he's managing.

One example was provided: the manager went to the cubicle of this developer and said something, to which the developer was heard responding angrily, "Are you tasking me?!"

So, here are my questions:

  • Is "tasking" different from assigning someone a task?
  • If not, why would someone get furious over it? I mean, someone has to oversee what you're working on, and it can't be helped if they're younger.
  • If yes, what exactly does it mean?
  • Finally, if "tasking" someone is something as harmless as assigning a task and people still get offended, how will you ever get someone to do something, especially within a stipulated time-frame?

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Ankush Thakur

@ankush981

Fullstack dev working in Laravel, Node, Vue and React. Looking for bigger challenges!

Discussion

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Is "tasking" different from assigning someone a task?

A few examples of usage:

  • "I was tasked with updating this file." would be equivalent to saying "I was given the work of updating this file."

  • "I was given a task." is equivalent to saying "I was given work to do"

  • "I'm going to task you with making me a Big Mac." is equivalent to saying "I'm going to give you the work of making me a Big Mac."

These things are ways to communicate about normal workplace task assignment. But the usage is not necessarily commonplace.

So my answer to your first question: no.


If not, why would someone get furious over it? I mean, someone has to oversee what you're working on, and it can't be helped if they're younger.

I do not think the normal usage of task is offensive. There are a number of reasons someone may become angry receiving work or being told to do work. Even something as simple as coming into work tired may make you very irritable towards coworkers and/or your boss. A manager should be keen and aware that many day to day factors affect how people work.

There is no simple answer to this question.


Finally, if "tasking" someone is something as harmless as assigning a task and people still get offended, how will you ever get someone to do something, especially within a stipulated time-frame?

This question, regardless of being a young manager, touches on a great number of issues and in general about the topic of how to manage people. For that there are a great number of things to say.

I used to be a manager at a hotel for a team of housekeepers. At the time I was 26 and all of them were older, more experienced and set in their ways. I had a great number of struggles and I learned a lot. I learned a great deal from Jesus as he calls leaders to be servants. That's not easy. Let me share a few things that I can think of:

  • Kindness and Respect towards workers is of utmost importance. At times I used to stop my workers from working and talk with them when I realized there were some problems going on. Either personal or work related. This resulted in building good relationships with my staff and a great deal of trust.
  • If someone is struggling with their work, offer help or arrange help. I never thought of myself as beyond the duties of my staff. I would hop in and help when they're having a hard time completing work. This helped them know that I support them and don't think that I'm better than them.
  • Always give staff the tools they need for the job. If a staffer doesn't have a hammer, he will never hammer a nail no matter how much you ask.
  • A manager sets the tone for the workplace. If you are repeatedly negative as a manager then you will have a negative workplace. People won't even like coming to work.
  • Controlling people means you are not trusting them. Trust your staff. When they make mistakes (and they will) help them grow from the experience. Don't cry over spilled milk. Repeated issues should be dealt with in a different way though.
  • Don't make assumptions about why someone is not finishing a task. Listen first, speak later.
  • Some people might be skilled, but that doesn't mean they are efficient. Efficiency can be learned though. That requires patience from a manager.
  • Communicate expectations for tasks well. If a task was given without a clear deadline, well, a problem will happen.
  • Having some disciplinary structure in place for repeated unfinished work or repeated issues. Fully documented. If they are refusing to work then what on earth are you paying them for??!! Disciplinary measures are usually last resort but staff should be aware of them so there are no surprises.

The example you quoted is a bit interesting:

the manager went to the cubicle of this developer and said something, to which the developer was heard responding angrily, "Are you tasking me?!"

There could be a great number of reasons for this kind of response. But there seems to be some nuance to it that sounds more like "are you micromanaging me?"

 

But there seems to be some nuance to it that sounds more like "are you micromanaging me?"

Yes, that seems to be the most sensible explanation. I suppose the use of "tasking" is common to their region (the podcast is completedeveloperpodcast.com/ by the way). I believe these folks are Canadian, so maybe in certain parts of Canada people use "tasking" to mean "micromanaging".

That said, several of your leadership pointers are on point but gave me shudders. The soup of conflicts and contradictions is why I want to avoid "leadership" roles, but it looks like one can't make any worthwhile impact without getting into that position.

The problem of leadership, at least as I see it, is that you have to accept the people you have -- you can't expect them to work diligently most of the time (I guess very, very few are passionate and driven). If you take them to task for this, they'll grow resentful and leave. And if you actually want to change the culture so that people are productive, it's going to be a very hard fight against organizational inertia, and maybe even the top management.

 

One of the greatest issues of leadership in a company that I have seen is when leadership values the product being created over the people that make it happen.

You are right that it is very hard to change the culture of a place - but not impossible. When I stepped into that role being a manger, it was a nasty department. A big mess. Everyone was negative towards each other and selfish. Very little team work. We always had short morning meetings and it was usually "task related news" -- stuff people don't want to hear. So I decided to lighten it up. I bought a big thick book of jokes and I would read one of them every morning at the meeting (they were never really short). When I started doing that it seemed like some didn't care much or even scoffed at the idea. But as months passed by things started changing.

If you have to step into a role of leadership in a company that's already established, it is hard to change things. Starting a new company you can set a culture right from the start. But one of the keys I believe is to have consistency with things you do and keep it simple.

Are you looking to get into some leadership position in a company?

 

Culturally speaking, the reason some might be offended by the term "task" is that it goes back to slavery systems. The term "task-master" comes from slavery.

From How Slavery Inspired Modern Business Management:

As Gantt wrote, “The term ‘task master’ is an old one in our language; it symbolizes the time, now happily passing away, when men were compelled to work, not for their own interests, but for those of some one else.” Gantt’s goal was not to abolish this old system but to adapt it to modern needs. As he explained, “The general policy of the past has been to drive, but the era of force must give way to that of knowledge, and the policy of the future will be to teach and to lead, to the advantage of all concerned.”

That "now happily passing away" time was in reference to the US system of slavery.

The cultural-assessment presumes that the author of the linked article - and those similar to it - are correct.

 

some might be offended by the term "task"

I doubt the word "task" itself was spoken by the manager. Who in his right mind would say, "Hey, let me task you with this"? And even if some idiot did that, the response I mentioned doesn't make sense. Consider this conversation:

Manager: "Hey, I'm giving you a task to do XYZ by next Friday."
Developer: "Are you trying to task me??"

Looks like a conversation a bot would generate.

In conclusion, I think no one was offended by the word "task" because it was likely never spoken.

 

I doubt the word "task" itself was spoken by the manager. Who in his right mind would say, "Hey, let me task you with this"? And even if some idiot did that, the response I mentioned doesn't make sense.

In the US? Many, many, many managers would use some variation of exactly that. Primary difference is it typically wouldn't be in the form of a near-request, but a flat imperative (i.e., "I'm giving you this task" or, even more frequently, "I'm tasking you with this").

For a more (near) interogative example of manager-speak, you'd likely hear, "I have an ask for you" (often with the "big" modifier).

Manager-speak is liberally-peppered with all sorts of cringe-inducing word-choices.

In conclusion, I think no one was offended by the word "task" because it was likely never spoken.

You need to get out more - or at least talk to more people.

In the US? Many, many, many managers would use some variation of exactly that.

Really? Wow! At least it confirms that the usage I came across in that podcast wasn't uncommon. Thanks for your inputs!

I came back to say that my last new manager said these exact words to me, "So, who's tasking you right now?" :D

 

As far as I am aware 'tasking' is generally what you are perceiving it to be... Setting someone a task to complete.

There are possibly some really slight connotations of there being a chance that the assignee might not complete what you have asked them to do, else you would just say 'can you complete this' rather than 'I'm going to set you a task', but really that is reading deep between the lines.

I am a 28-year-old lead developer with older team members. Never experienced an issue with pushback from the team. If you treat people how you would want to be treated then all is fine.

 

"I'm going to set you a task"

Notice that this wasn't said by the manager. In fact, what he said is not known. Plus replying to "I'm going to set you a task" with "Are you trying to task me??" is the silliest thing I can imagine. This led me to start wondering whether "tasking" has some connotations of micro-management that I wasn't aware of. And that is why I posted it here.

I am a 28-year-old lead developer with older team members. Never experienced an issue with pushback from the team.

And that's the way I'd imagine it to be. Everyone is part of a structure, and if we respect that structure and get along, there should be no problems.

 

First off, caveat, I don't know the specific circumstances. Stepping on, there are so many reasons why someone might respond in anger to what the asker might perceive as an ordinary request, many of which can have little to nothing to do with the actual request.

If you're on the manager or requester side of this, and you don't understand the reaction, it's the time to ask what's going on. There may be too many things the dev has been tasked with, there maybe something else occupying their bandwidth, or they may be stressed at the point you've interrupted them during a particularly gnarly problem they're trying to figure out, or 10,000 other things. Asking what's up is going to put things back on an even keel, and may present them with the opportunity to task you with something to get something off their plate.

This response isn't the best place to go into this, since it's quite a deep topic.

 

This response isn't the best place to go into this, since it's quite a deep topic.

No, I didn't ask people to dive deeper into this topic. My post had a very narrow and clear objective: does "tasking" someone has connotations that I'm not aware of? The answer seems to be "no", so I guess that's the end of it.

 

No, I think you're right. Tasking someone with something is just giving them a task and expecting them to complete it.

I suppose some people might not be comfortable with "taking orders", rather than feeling like they had a say in how tasks were distributed, but... isn't that just one of the realities of working in a company?

 

This seems to be the right explanation. "Tasking" might have a different dictionary meaning, but culturally, it must have meant "ordering around" in the context of the story I shared.