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Why executive function skills are important in the workplace

Individuals who lack executive function skills have difficulty shifting gears, meeting reasonable deadlines like filing for taxes or submitting an RFP and generally have an extraordinarily disorganized workspace, bedroom or car.
Individuals who lack executive function skills have difficulty shifting gears, meeting reasonable deadlines like filing for taxes or submitting an RFP and generally have an extraordinarily disorganized workspace, bedroom or car. .

A South Florida employee was working diligently with his teammates for close to 30 days on a Request for Proposal (RFP). The employee was not only a contributing member of the team but also the one responsible to coordinate the submission process. The report was submitted on the due date at 5:03 pm. The problem: the report was due at 5 p.m. and was automatically rejected based on a time stamp. The team was devastated, the business owner was furious, and the employee was terminated.

This was not the first time this individual had missed a deadline. But it was the first time he reached out for help to treat his “time blindness.”

His diagnosis: Executive Function Disorder (EFD).

Executive function, a term first coined in the 1970s, refers to a set of higher-order brain abilities that allow you to analyze a task, plan the approach, organize the steps required to complete the task, and meet academic, personal and career goals. Individuals who lack executive function skills have difficulty shifting gears, meeting reasonable deadlines like filing for taxes or submitting an RFP and generally have an extraordinarily disorganized workspace, bedroom or car.

These types of behaviors can annoy and even exasperate business owners and fellow employees as well as family members and friends. Mind you, we are not talking about just a messy desk or missed deadline, but a consistent pattern of executive dysfunction. In the past, development of executive function skills were generally taken for granted. You either had them or you didn’t. The problem is, we are not born with these executive function skills; we are born with the potential to develop them.

I recently read the Marie Kondo book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” and a comment Ms. Kondo made in her book struck an interesting chord: “You can’t tidy if you have never learned how.”

She explains the expectation of parents for children to know how to tidy their rooms and the assumption by teachers that we have the organizational skills needed to keep our backpacks in order, our desks neat and assignments handed in on time. As business owners, we also have expectations, and when our employees fail to meet them, their jobs are in jeopardy.

Executive dysfunction does not usually exist in a vacuum but often presents in conjunction with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), traumatic brain disorder, and autism. Additionally, our ability to focus on goals can be compounded by the overwhelming amount of technological stimuli that bombard us on an hourly basis.

As I am typing this article, new emails keep popping up on my screen, my phone shares notifications, and my smart watch is vibrating. It’s a Catch-22. While we depend on technology for time-saving conveniences, we often neglect to make time allowances for the occasions when they fail us: for example, when our computer shuts down unexpectedly or the photocopy machine ceases operation as we are frantically collating booklets for an important presentation. Our executive function skills can be wired to take into account the deadlines as well as the possibilities of glitches and how to account for them as we plan our day.

As the founder of an online speech therapy company, I believe speech therapists are primed to diagnose and treat executive dysfunction, probably because executive functions are strongly related to language and learning difficulties. Our goal is to treat not just the symptoms but the source of the problem. Sometimes the treatment plan emphasizes increasing self-awareness and providing compensatory strategies. Other times, we teach skills and reinforce through repetition. Often we offer suggestions to effectively and realistically modify the work space to limit distractions and add visual cues to promote new habits, one at a time. For it is only through the conscious effort of establishing and committing to a new habit that an individual with EFD can move on to embrace the next challenge.

For this particular client, our goal was time management. We taught him to work backward, set realistic time frames, and overcompensate to prevent time blindness. With self-awareness, he was better able to self-monitor and self-adapt. Change came slowly. But with a commitment to change and sweat equity, our client was able to leverage his executive function skills to his advantage, get another job, and remain gainfully employed.

Avivit Ben Aharon, MS ED., MA CCC SLP is founder and clinical director of Great Speech Inc., an online speech therapy solution that uses video technology to provide individualized, interactive service. www.Greatspeech.com

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▪ This is an opinion piece written for Business Monday’s “My View” space in the Miami Herald. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.

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