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11 Executive Functioning Skills Needed In The Workplace

This article was based on episode 178 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get the full episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase any full episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop.


Executive functioning has been a growing topic in childhood education as the number of kids who struggle with focus and follow-through grows. As adults, it’s rarely mentioned despite being one of the most important skill sets necessary to succeed in the workplace. When the brain takes in information from our surroundings, it needs to decide what to do next. These skills which are housed in the prefrontal cortex can be split into eleven different categories.


I recently read the amazing book Smart but Scattered to help my dyslexic daughter with her own executive functioning skills and I started thinking about how essential it is for managers and their teams to develop, or at least understand, their own strengths and weaknesses in this area. This knowledge can help us better understand our own tendencies as well as give us insight into why we have friction with our colleagues.


Keep in mind: you may operate differently in different contexts and with different motivations. For example, you might be great at jumping into tasks you’re excited about but procrastinate when you don’t really care about the project. Or you may be amazing at remembering everything about your team members’ lives but completely forget what you discussed at the last meeting. Or, you may be extremely focused when working in an office or coffee shop but struggle to stay on track when working from home, even outside of COVID times. As you reflect on your own behavior, note any skills where the context or motivation matters.


1. Response Inhibition

Response inhibition is your ability to control your responses to stimulation or distractions. Self control, or the ability to refrain from actions that are in conflict with your goals, is one aspect of response inhibition. Another is stopping habitual behaviors when they’re not appropriate, like not trying to catch a hot pan that got knocked off the stove.


Can you work at a coffee shop and drown out all of the other noise competing for your attention? Can you resist watching Netflix on a night you need to get sleep, even if your spouse is begging you? How thoughtfully are you able to choose how you respond instead of reacting when strong stimuli comes up?


2. Working Memory

Working memory is your ability to hold information for a few minutes, hours, or days. Think of it like your brain’s white board that keeps important information handy until you don’t need it, but it’s also limited in size and therefore as new information gets added, other information gets erased.


Are you able to hold onto relevant information while you are working on a task? Do you remember to follow through on your commitments, or do you find yourself constantly referring back to your to-do list to remind you? Are you the type that is able to remember what was said during a meeting so that you can refer back to it a few weeks later?


3. Emotional Control

Emotional control is about being able to navigate your feelings in a healthy way. While similar to response inhibition, emotional control focuses on your ability to recognize appropriate emotional responses and control your behavior to fit the context regardless of your emotional state.


Are you able to receive feedback, without resorting to defensiveness? Is it hard for you to get work done when something is bothering you? Do you feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster all day?


4. Sustained Attention

Sustained attention is the ability to maintain focus over time, even when you're tired or the task is challenging. It’s similar to persistence and sticking with the activity at hand until it’s done or the goal has been achieved.


How capable are you of sticking to a task, especially when it’s difficult work? Can you work on one thing for hours, or do you need to take frequent breaks? Do you find yourself getting distracted and off task often?


5. Task Initiation

Task initiation is all about getting started. People who struggle with task initiation likely call themselves procrastinators.


Do you usually jump right in to start a new project, or do you usually wait until the last minute? Do you tend to avoid tasks, even easy ones? Do you find that the hardest part of any task is getting started, and that once you’re going, it’s easy?


6. Planning And Prioritizing

Planning and prioritizing are your ability to consider what needs to get done and in what order. It requires us to take a step back and think through the bigger picture of all the work we have and the time it will take to complete, as well as the relationships between the tasks.


How accurate are your plans when projecting forward? Do you prioritize your daily tasks and then stick to the plan? Do you consider which tasks are dependent on others so you avoid doing things in the wrong order?


7. Organization

Organization is the ability to create order and structure to the information, things, and activities we engage with. It includes keeping physical and digital spaces tidy as well as constructing information into a logical flow.


Is your desk/digital workspace tidy? Do you have a structure for your folders? Are your digital storage systems - like Task Manager/CRM - up to date? Do you organize information into a logical structure that makes it easy for others to follow along?


8. Time Management

Time management is the ability to use time wisely. It includes estimating how long tasks will take, allocating your time between tasks, pacing yourself appropriately, and working to meet deadlines.


Do you accurately predict how long tasks will take? Do you stick to time commitments? Do you always try to fit in just one more thing and end up running late? Do you show up on time for meetings and appointments? Do you regularly meet deadlines?


9. Goal Directed Persistence

Goal directed persistence is your ability to articulate and work towards accomplishing a goal. It requires us to be able to clearly define what success looks like as well as make choices that drive us toward that goal even when distracted, tired, challenged, etc.


Are you able to set goals and work towards them? Do you regularly modify or switch to new goals? Are you able to give up short term pleasure for long term benefits?


10. Flexibility

Flexibility is the ability to quickly change or adapt to new circumstances. This includes adjusting to changes as well as moving fluidly between activities.


How able are you to shift and pivot as needed? Can you adjust to changes in priorities, new information coming in, or an altered plan? Do you quickly go from one activity to another or do you need ‘warm up’ time?


11. Metacognition

Metacognition is about seeing the bigger picture. It’s the ability to put information and situations in context. It’s also about being able to reflect on your own thinking or behavior and explore both the what and the why behind your thoughts and actions.


Do you take time to reflect on your behavior or performance, considering what worked and didn’t, and why? Do you make sure to take a step back and look at the situation objectively? Do you normally consider the big picture or do you get stuck in the moment?


When we know our strengths and weaknesses, we become aware of what we want to develop in ourselves and how that will enable us to be more effective in the workplace and beyond. Self-knowledge of executive functioning skills can also give us greater understanding into why we clash with our employees, which can happen when we share weaknesses or when there’s a mismatch between a strength and weakness. For example, if your working memory is strong, you may be frustrated by a colleague who is constantly forgetting the next steps they agreed to in a prior meeting. When we invest in executive functioning, we improve how we work, which benefits everyone.


Stay tuned for Part 2 in episode 182, when I discuss how to improve on these executive functioning skills so you can help yourself and your team members become more effective.


Get the full episode guide when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase an individual episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


This article was based on episode 178 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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