March 26, 2023




In this 8020Info Water Cooler, we look at how to enhance psychological safety, dysfunctions of non-profit boards, hybrid schedules, tips for good design, the Cynefin Framework for strategy-making, how to vaccinate against misinformation, and what we’re reading. Enjoy!


1. Enhance Psychological Safety in Your Meetings

As a leader, do you emotionally and intellectually muzzle the room when people gather, or encourage an idea meritocracy instead? Consultant Timothy Clark has seen too many leaders fail to provide psychological safety, in effect squelching productive and open discussion.

In Harvard Business Review, he offers these suggestions for creating safety:

  • Assign someone else to conduct the meeting: Change the power dynamic by not taking the reins yourself. Don’t sit at the head of the table, either.
  • Create warmth and informality:  Pay attention to the slightest signals you might be sending during the discussion, including your gestures, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics.
  • Model acts of vulnerability:  You can do this by challenging your own position, asking for help, admitting what you don’t know, and pointing out a past mistake. You can also express uncertainty. That opens the way for others to do the same.
  • Stimulate inquiry before advocacy: Ask questions thoughtfully, in a tone of compassionate curiosity. Make statements like “help me think this through” or “I’d like to know…” before advancing your own views.
  • Reward challenges to the status quo: Clark points to a CEO who will raise an issue and ask everyone to challenge her point of view: “Tell me why I might be wrong. Help me see my blind spots.” When someone does, she will immediately reward that, saying: “Thank you. I may have missed something. Let’s explore your perspective.”

During discussion, focus on listening, and pausing before you speak, so others have a chance to be heard. Buffer the strong personalities, making space for introverts to speak up. Or a tone of light humour may work for you. Work to create psychological safety, rather than fear and caution.

Thanks to reader Jonathan Bennett from Clearly Then for suggesting this topic.

2. Competencies Needed to Fix Board Dysfunction

Boards can suffer from many weaknesses, but social impact consultant Mamali Mohapatra says three of the biggest problems involve rubber-stamp boards, micromanaging boards, and balkanized boards.

  • A rubber-stamp board approves whatever management asks for and often acts as a cheerleader. Approval becomes little more than one step on the executive director’s checklist. On Medium, Mohapatra says board members instead must show integrity and commitment to the vision, mission and goals of the organization — rather than defaulting to the wishes of the management team without doing their own due diligence.
  • A micromanaging board is the opposite, taking over key management functions in addition to its governing role. It focuses on tactics, not strategy. That disempowers staff, who can become passive or even passive-aggressive. Instead, she says, the board must be “planned and deliberate in its approach while monitoring the execution of strategy”. The board needs members with governance competencies, notably strategic leadership.
  • A balkanized board consists of people concerned with only one aspect of the organization (perhaps a part they have a personal interest in). They leave fitting all the parts together to the executive director, and their single-lens blinkered view can be dangerous when priorities must be evaluated.

Boards need members with a knowledge of their sector, professional experience, and a good sense of technical areas like finance, risk management, strategic planning, and equity, diversity and inclusion. Those competencies, she advises, will help a balkanized board to become more inclusive in their oversight of different parts of the organization without being overly dependent on the executive director.

3. Hints for Co-ordinating Hybrid Schedules

The new way of work appears to be a hybrid of working on-site and at home. But it has left all of us wondering how to meld that approach with the need for team engagement and collaboration.

Gallup explored the experiences of hybrid workers in a survey of 8,090 remote-capable U.S. employees. Working two to three days in the office each week tends to be optimal for employee engagement:

  • People in more independent roles, where most work activities are completed individually and asynchronously, needed fewer on-site days.
  • People in collaborative roles seem to need three days for high engagement.

The research found mandated office days don’t help, however.

“Hybrid employees who are not required to be at the office [for a certain number of days or on specific days] currently have higher engagement and are more likely to believe their organization cares about their well-being,” the researchers report on the Gallup site.

“These hybrid workers also have lower burnout and say they are less likely to leave their organization in the near future than those who have requirements to be on-site a set number of days.”


4. The Anatomy of Good Design

It’s easy to notice a visual design that looks good but harder to figure out why. Here are some key principles from The Nielsen Norman Group’s research on user experience:

  • Align typography (and other graphical elements) to a column grid. It’s the same principle used for columns in a newspaper. Anchor each visual element to that grid system.
  • Establish a clear visual hierarchy and color palette. Decide what is most important in your design. Then, through size, colour or placement, make sure users notice it first. Take a similar approach to assess and position content of lesser importance.
  • Finally, be consistent.

“Designs do not look good by chance. Each decision in a design should be made with intention,” Sarah Gibbons and Kelley Gordon write on the Nielsen Norman Group’s website.

5. Zingers

  • Listen to Learn: Listen with the intent to understand and learn, says consultant Frank Sonnenberg. Listen without judgment. Try to learn something new rather than obsess over what you might say next. (Source: Frank Sonnenberg Online).
  • Phoneless But Present: The next time you show up for a meeting or event, come empty handed. Leave your smartphone in the car and be present, advises executive coach Dan Rockwell.  (Source: LeadershipFreak).
  • Sustain Your Coaching: After sharing feedback with an under-performing staff member, don’t assume change will happen on its own. Consultant Stephen Lynch notes you may see a temporary spike in performance, but to ensure the message sticks you must monitor performance and provide ongoing coaching — try weekly one-on-one meetings over the next 90 days so true behavioural change takes place. (Source: Stephen Lynch).
  • Change Involves Backsliding: Change initiatives inevitably encounter setbacks. The consultants at NOBL Academy suggest the more you can demonstrate that setbacks are a natural part of the change journey, the better your team will shake off disappointment and keep moving forward. (Source: NOBL Academy).
  • Advice on ChatGPT: MarketingProfs chief content officer Ann Handley says an AI tool like ChatGPT is not the creator at your keyboard but a helper perched on your shoulder. It can help you brainstorm, outline, refine, edit and iterate on headlines. But an AI tool is only as powerful as the writer wielding it. (Source: Total Annarchy).

6. The Cynefin Model: Match Strategy to Conditions

The best way to approach a problem often depends on the context — what works well in one situation can prove ineffective or counterproductive in another.

The Cynefin Framework (the Welsh word is pronounced kuh-nev-in) developed by C. F. Kurtz and D. J. Snowden is a sense-making model that matches up the best type of approach for the situation. If you’re facing a domain that is:

  • Obvious or Simple (the known) — Focus on Best Practice. When relationships between cause and effect are well known, use established best practices.
  • Complicated (the knowable) — Focus on In this case, although we can’t immediately identify what is happening, we can call on expertise to analyze the situation and come to a conclusion on what must be done.
  • Complex (the unknowable) — Focus on Emergence. No one is able to determine what will cause a particular result. The best course of action is to conduct experiments and check if any take us in the correct direction.
  • Chaotic (the incoherent) — Focus on Rapid Response. This involves a situation that is very unstable and has consequences. Without time to experiment, probe or analyze, we just need to act and establish order.

A final category might be called Disorder (not determined), which includes any other situation outside these domains.

Like Tom Connor in his Medium feature on the Cynefin Framework, we are most interested in strategies for complex situations, which so many of our clients are facing. In turn he points us to an excellent summary in Harvard Business Review by David Snowden and Mary Boone for those who’d like to dig deeper.


7.  Around Our Water Cooler


Can You Vaccinate Against Fake News?

Given our roots in communications and media, we often decry today’s storm of misinformation and “fake news” that fills our information channels.

You might take a look at this Scientific American interview with Sander van der Linden, a Cambridge social psychologist and author of Foolproof  in which he explains how to build immunity to misinformation that, like a virus, can infect our minds.

We can “vaccinate” ourselves before exposure, for example, by learning about:

  • Emotionally Manipulative Language.
  • Scapegoating.
  • False Dichotomies (“If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”)
  • Echo Chambers (factors that narrow our range of information sources).

One study found that almost 50% of respondents believed they could spot fake news; only 4% were able to do so successfully. Time to inoculate!


What We’re Reading:

  • Harvey’s Pick: Tomorrowmind by workplace mental health expert Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman looks in depth at five skills vital for the future and offers lots of helpful techniques to become better at them: Resilience, prospection or foresight, innovation, social support, and meaning (or, as they prefer to call it, mattering).
  • Rob’s Pick: Who isn’t dealing with complexity today? In 2014, the Boston Consulting Group published Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated with strategies drawn from economics, game theory and organizational psychology: Understand what your people do. Empower them. Reinforce the integrators. Increase reciprocity and reward those who cooperate. Our favourite: Extend the “shadow of the future” — what happens tomorrow results from what we do today.


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8020Info helps senior leadership teams and boards develop, clarify and build consensus behind strategic priorities. Our services support strategic planning and change processes, marketing communications and research / stakeholder consultations. We would be pleased to discuss your needs and welcome enquiries.

8.  Closing Thought

Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, ‘Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today.’ It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad — you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, ‘I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year’.”

Ray Bradbury, writer