Educate November 2018

Fostering Executive Function for Peak Performance


Written By: Noel Foy

Ridiculing generational differences is nothing new, but complaints don’t get us very far. Specific, objective feedback, on the other hand, can be a productive and helpful exercise.

In this vein, I want to address a challenge affecting the productivity, relationships and performance of numerous young candidates entering the workforce – lack of executive function and the ability to overcome obstacles.

Many factors contribute to a decline in executive function skills. They include trauma, stress, helicopter parenting and distractions from technological devices. I’ve devoted my career as a neuroeducator to helping students build executive function, grit and resilience – key skills for success in school, jobs, relationships … life.

Executive function skills are a set of self-driven skills needed to get stuff done. Think of them as the CEO of the brain that coordinates memory, organization, time management, problem-solving, communication, critical thinking and reflection.

With underdeveloped executive function or a weak CEO come challenges with goal-setting, making plans, decision-making, managing distractions, meeting deadlines and regulating emotions.

You may hear managers or co-workers refer to some Gen Xers, Millenials and Xennials as coddled and unaware. The underlying problem, I would suggest, is that many young adults have underdeveloped skill sets and mindsets, often called soft skills. Truth be told, these skills don’t fully develop in the brain until around age 30; even some older workers may lack strong executive function, despite their advanced years.

Executive function skills are not explicitly taught in school, but they are highly sought by employers, no matter the field.

Not everyone develops these skills independently, but the good news is they can be taught. As employers, you can apply what I teach as part of your hiring process by inquiring about job candidates’ approaches to:

  • Goal-setting and organization
  • Communication— both verbal and written
  • Leadership and collaboration
  • Using mistakes or failures as learning opportunities or wake-up calls
  • Managing distractions

In my work with students, many of whom attend highly competitive colleges, the typical narrative is they were successful in high school but are struggling in college.

What I discover is that they have weak executive function in setting goals, using a planner, communicating, managing time efficiently and prioritizing work over fun – and that’s just for starters. Many responsibilities we would expect the students to own were handled by their parents, teachers and coaches, even during their high school years, which deprived them of valuable opportunities to practice and develop these skills.

Lacking the structure to which they are accustomed, many college students are at a loss about what to do and how to cope. To add fuel to the fire, many of them panic when they hit a roadblock and don’t know how to communicate they need help.

For some, a fear of failure or making mistakes inhibits students from asking teachers, advisers and friends for help. Others are embarrassed and ashamed to inform their parents about the reality of the semester’s unraveling. Facing and rebounding from adversity are not part of their survival kit.

What seems like a series of harmless choices quickly snowballs. Going to a party leads to staying out to wee hours of the morning, sleeping in and missing classes, which then contributes to getting behind and feeling stressed. Students soon find themselves in a deep, dark hole, stuck and unequipped to dig their way out. Continuing to party seems an easier and more pleasant route than developing a disciplined plan to study and climb out of the hole.

Sound familiar?

It may be frustrating to accept that many young, bright and talented job candidates are lacking these skills, but what I find encouraging is my students are eager to develop them. You too can increase your employees’ executive function by discussing or providing training in:

Realistic goal-setting and incremental steps to reach each goal

Organizational tools or strategies for budgeting time, prioritizing and setting deadlines

Effective communication, leadership and mindset skills

Overcoming obstacles that get in the way of goals

Check-in points for tweaking and improving

Wellness programs to reduce stress and increase well-being

Speaking of stress, our emotional versus thinking brain often takes over when stressed, causing more mistakes and mental errors. The skills we need most to make good decisions, solve problems, think critically and reach peak performance actually go offline when we exceed our healthy stress zones.

Think of how much happier and empowered, not to mention efficient and productive, employees or co-workers can be by working in environments that support awareness and cultivation of these skills. Imagine the benefits to be gained by using generational differences to our advantage. By learning from each other and sharing our skill sets and experiences, we can stress less, work smarter and achieve more.

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