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Improve Performance by Improving Executive Functioning Skills

This article was based on episode 182 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.


There are eleven core executive functioning skills that help us thrive in our careers. I detailed these in episode 178: What Are Executive Management Skills, based on the incredible book Smart But Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. These skills include response inhibition, emotional control, working memory, sustained attention, task initiation, planning and prioritization, organization, time management, goal directed persistence, flexibility, and metacognition. For managers, knowing the strengths and weaknesses for ourselves and our team members can enable us to work together more effectively.


Once you have a clear understanding of what you or a colleague struggle with, you can take steps to improve. We can do this either by developing the skills themselves, or finding ways to compensate for weaknesses.


THREE WAYS TO IMPROVE EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS


Before trying to change your natural tendencies, explore if there are ways to set yourself up for success by altering the environment or adding an additional incentive. If neither of those work, then it’s time to grow a new skill.


1. Alter The Environment Is there something you can do for yourself or your employee in the environment to support a weaker skill? For example, I struggle with time management and always try to squeeze in tasks at the last minute. So knowing this tendency, I changed my alerts for upcoming meetings to give me realistic expectations for what I can really accomplish before I hop on a call.

Maybe an employee struggling with response inhibition speaks way too much at meetings. Consider using the "round robin” format at meetings so that there are clear boundaries for how much time everyone can speak. Altering the environment can also be as simple as posting a sticky note or blocking-off calendar times that serve as visual reminders.


2. Add Motivation

Sometimes we just need that extra push to get ourselves to work on a skill that’s hard for us. These can be either incentives or penalties. It’s a cliche, but chocolate can get me to do so many things I would rather procrastinate on! Other motivators may be the opportunity to work on an exciting new project or not being able to get home in time for dinner with the family.


And don’t forget the power of praise as a motivator. When you see someone put in the effort or do what’s hard for them, let them know you see it and appreciate it.


3. Improve The Skill If after altering the environment and adding some motivation, the skill is still keeping you from performing your best, it’s time to invest in growing. Can you get a coach or an accountability partner to help you or your employees improve in your weaker skills? I have clients struggling with metacognition who get tunnel vision when they’re stuck. I teach them how to see the bigger picture in hard moments. It takes effort and practice to improve executive functioning skills, but eventually it becomes habitual.


HOW TO CREATE A PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN


Keep in mind that often it’s not just one skill, but a routine or task that combines multiple skills that we struggle with. Struggling with deadlines, for example, might be about issues with planning, task initiation, and time management all rolled into one. Whether tackling one skill or a multi-faceted routine, I suggest creating a personal development plan for yourself or in concert with a colleague whom you’re supporting.


1. Get Clear On The Problem Define what is the real issue. How is it impacting you? The team?


2. What Does Success Look Like? How will you know when you’ve achieved success? In order to acknowledge when you’ve gotten there, you need to know what it looks like when you’ve arrived.


3. Brainstorm Approaches How can you change the environment in order to reduce or eliminate the weakness? Are there motivators you can add in to get yourself going? What do you need to learn, and who might you connect with that can facilitate that learning? Be creative! Anything goes in this stage.


4. Decide

Decide on what approach you want to go with first. Consider if there are any additional supports or scaffolding that can help you get started. For example, do you want an accountability partner early on or to add some additional visual reminders? (These can always be taken away later).


5. Track Data

There’s nothing better than seeing what progress you’ve made. Identify what data you can use to see progress. Habit trackers are great to see and celebrate your successes.


Changing our behavior is not easy. The key word in this journey is practice. Pick one skill at a time, and go with what feels right. Start with the minimum amount you can do, and then add on more over time. Keep in mind that what works for you might not work for others, and your strengths may be a team member’s weaknesses. Improving our executive functioning skills is a lifelong journey. Adjust, go back to brainstorming, and try again. Then repeat. Your team will appreciate this growth mindset as you slowly learn how to function better together.


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 182 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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