Executive function.

You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you almost certainly know what this skill set looks like in your professional life. We all want our employees and co-workers to exhibit these competencies. Most likely, you wouldn’t be at your current career level without them.

At its most basic level, executive function refers to an array of interrelated skills that any functioning adult needs to succeed in work and life. That skill set includes the ability to focus one’s attention, regulate one’s impulses and behaviors, and hold in working memory the information necessary to complete a task.  This umbrella of skills also includes a crucial component known as cognitive flexibility—the ability to navigate successfully in complex or changeable situations and environments.

Think about it—we’ve all known people who might excel in some aspect of their professional responsibilities. But when the situation shifts and calls for the application of skills in a new way—for example, being asked to lead an important work project at short notice and with little preparation—he or she quickly becomes overwhelmed by the challenge. That doesn’t necessarily mean an unwillingness to adapt to the situation as much as a limited ability to pivot mentally and emotionally to meet changing conditions or expectations on the job.

Surveys conducted by the Nebraska Departments of Labor and Economic Development indicate that employers generally require a workforce that demonstrates an intermediate-to-advanced capacity to adapt to workplace change.

During my previous career with a Nebraska law firm, I saw firsthand how essential cognitive flexibility is to professional success. Legal assistants, paralegals and even attorneys who are fully capable of performing Tasks A and B may ultimately struggle to apply those same competencies—to connect the dots, so to speak—to complete Task C. Some of those issues can be overcome with professional coaching, but all too often workers never come unstuck. In a fast-paced business culture, supervisors and co-workers can’t always be there to guide struggling employees along. Let me be clear—this problem isn’t specific to employees with low educational or professional preparation.  It’s often seen even in professionals who’ve graduated law school and passed the bar.

Growth often has a way of throwing these disparities of cognitive flexibility into sharp focus. According to one Greater Nebraska business leader I recently spoke to, his company's employees tended to respond in one of two ways to a recent period of corporate expansion. Some who had been with the company for years met this as an opportunity to grow along with the jobs they began with. But others faced great difficulties in adjusting to the changing expectations of their positions and responsibilities. While some who struggled to adapt were ultimately able to recover to meet the needs of the organization, many were obliged to leave the company entirely—at a cost not only to their own careers, but the bottom line of their former employer as well. 


Laying the groundwork for cognitive flexibility

Nebraska’s employers need an up-and-coming pool of workers that is ready to hit the job market with strong executive function and cognitive flexibility skills already in place. But these are complex sets of competencies that mature over time, meaning that they’re unlikely to suddenly take root during secondary, post-secondary or career education. We need to look further upstream.

While many aspects of executive function don’t fully develop until later adolescence (particularly impulse control!), the process begins much earlier than that. In fact, developmental scientists confirm children’s earliest learning experiences can profoundly affect their emerging cognitive flexibility skills, well before they even reach kindergarten. High-quality early care and learning environments actively encourage young children’s ability to transition between different kinds of structured activities and adjust their specific roles within those activities. This is evident in pretend play, as when a group of young children playing “school” would be expected to share, exchange or modify roles (such taking turns as the “teacher”) as they go. In other cases, children might be encouraged to try performing a familiar task in a different way—such as building a house out of popsicle sticks instead of toy blocks.

As simple as these activities sound, they actively engage the brain’s ability to organize itself for experimentation, creativity and task focus. The more supportive, consistently stimulating early environments and activities are, the more likely children are to begin their formal education with the cognitive flexibility skills they’ll need to succeed in the kindergarten, elementary school, STEM programs and beyond. Conversely, children who lack positive early learning experiences are more likely to struggle in educational environments where they are regularly expected to shift their attention from one subject area to another, demonstrate active problem-solving skills and think outside of rigid patterns and routines.


Why it matters to Nebraska’s economic future

Surveys conducted by the Nebraska Departments of Labor and Economic Development indicate that employers generally require a workforce that demonstrates an intermediate-to-advanced capacity to adapt to workplace change.  This holds true across nearly every regional labor market study and includes employers of all sizes in both goods and service-producing businesses and industries.

Troublingly, those same studies also show that employers report significant deficiencies among their existing workforce in terms of change adaptability, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and other key components of executive function. Nebraska’s long-term economic strength is at risk when employers recognize a critical need for executive function skills in the workplace, but struggle to find those skills in the current or potential workforce.

This is a challenge that will require public and private collaboration to promote skill formation in young Nebraskans at every stage in their educational development. It’s encouraging to know that a growing number of business leaders—like those in Dividends Nebraska—are addressing this challenge in a highly strategic, far-reaching way. By supporting local and statewide efforts to promote high-quality early learning, Nebraska employers are actively cultivating a future talent pool that will demonstrate the flexibility needed to keep apace of rapid change and compete in tomorrow’s marketplace.