Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Learning To Resist

The words "executive function" sound like management-speak, don't they? Actually, they're a psychological term for a group of strategic behaviors that we begin to master in grade school. Watch this great little video to see how hard it is for children to resist the cookie.

The video re-enacts a famous experiment about childhood development, conducted in the 1960s by Walter Mischel.

To quote from John Medina's blog:
"Our executive function controls planning, foresight, problem solving, and goal setting. We now know that it is actually a better predictor of academic success than I.Q. It's not a small difference, either: Mischel found that children who could delay gratification for 15 minutes scored 210 points higher on their SATs than children who lasted one minute."
"A child's brain can be trained to enhance self-control and other aspects of executive function. But genes are undoubtedly involved. There seems to be an innate schedule of development, which explains why the cookie experiment shows a difference in scores between kindergartners and sixth graders. Some kids display the behaviors earlier, some later. Some struggle with it their entire lives. It's one more way every brain is wired differently. But children who are able to filter out distractions, the data show, do far better in school."
These strategic executive behaviors are such a major advantage to students, you would think they are uniformly well-developed among executives – the successful adults who run companies. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Many business leaders struggle with executive function, and maybe you're one of them. If so, you know that the cost of giving into temptation is a not measured in cookies lost. It is measured in millions of dollars spent, months or years of opportunity missed, and large numbers of staff discouraged.

The object of temptation for business leaders may be: a restructuring, a technology replacement, a client with deep pockets, an acquisition opportunity, a new product line, a strategic planning retreat, or a change initiative. And learning to resist can seem so daunting that it doesn't even look advisable. But it is not only advisable, it is essential. Think of how many wildly expensive initiatives, forays, adventures, and fiascos you've been involved in that proved of questionable value when all was said and done. That's temptation in action. Fortunately, the ability to resist does improve with practice

If you see yourself anywhere in the above picture and would like to raise your game, you can start in a small, safe sandbox until your delayed gratification muscle gains some strength.

In fact, you can start first thing Monday morning! Put a task in your calendar now for next Monday to make a special effort all week to delay your gratification in one of the following ways:
  • Give a delegate one additional week to work out a solution themselves
  • Pick a major initiative from your portfolio and decide to suspend all work on it for the week
  • Ignore an urgent but unimportant issue for the entire week
  • Leave your business problems behind when you go home at the end of the day, every day
I wouldn't blame you for feeling anxious or skeptical just reading the list. "I can't do that," you may be thinking. Congratulations, the learning has begun! You can snuff it out right now by agreeing with your disempowering fears, or you can reframe them this way: "How might I do that?"

Let the games begin!