How can leaders design for purposeful change?

This is a question that really interests me and it’s a topic where there’s a lot of energy, considering the impact of technology, health, and climate on people now and in the future.

The “Systemic Design Framework” was launched by the Design Council in April 2021.

It’s based on an evolution in thinking about design over time:

1.0 Was about visual communication and assets

2.0 Was about human-centred design to create value-add

3.0 Was about organisational and social innovation

4.0 Now design needs to tackle “wicked problems” and complex systems.

What does it take for leaders to do this?:

=> SYSTEM THINKER: The ability to see how things are interconnected and to zoom between the micro and the macro and across silos.

=> STORYTELLER: To use the power of storytelling to create energy at all levels and to maximise involvement.

=> DESIGNER AND MAKER: To use technical and creative skills to make things happen through prototyping, testing and iteration.

=> CONNECTOR AND CONVENER: To create spaces where people from different backgrounds come together to drive action.

At the heart of all this is sense making, empathy, involvement and co-creation.

My clients are thinking about this, along the lines of “How are we building systemic change into our leadership frameworks as we plan for the future of work?”

If you want to learn more about this framework and approach, this is a great summary article: “Ways of designing: A reflection on strategic and systemic design”.

#Leadership #DesignThinking #EmployeeExperience #Inclusion #CimateAction

#FutureOfWork #BehaviorChange #SystemsThinking #SystemicDesign #HR

What really matters for trust?

Joseph Folkman in his book “The Trifecta of Trust” came up with these three pillars after looking at masses of leadership feedback data. The point of a trifecta is that these pillars have an order to them.

1. The first pillar is Expertise:

=> “This is the extent to which you are well informed and knowledgeable. It includes your understanding of the technical aspects of the work, as well as your depth of experience.”

=> Expertise is demonstrated by good judgement in making decisions.

2. Once you have achieved a level of expertise, you must demonstrate Consistency:

=> This means walking the talk and doing what you say you will do

=> You are a good role model for others

=> You keep your promises.

3. The final pillar is Fostering Positive Relationships:

=> You stay in touch with the issues and concerns of others (empathy)

=> You balance results with concern for others

=> Your relationships generate cooperation

=> You give “honest feedback in a helpful way”

=> You build an inclusive climate.

I also like his discussion of the “humble expert”, the link between trust and engagement, and trust and confidence:

=> “Confidence can magnify trust, but only when a person’s confidence matches up with their competence. Assuming you are much more effective than you really are causes others to lose trust in you.”

That rings very true!

Reference: Folkman, Joseph R.. The Trifecta of Trust: The Proven Formula for Building and Restoring Trust. United States: River Grove Books, 2022.

#Leadership #Trust #PsychologicalSafety #EmployeeEngagement #FutureOfWork #EmployeeExperience #HR #Inclusion #BehavioralScience #BestThingsAlwaysComeInThrees

What’s the secret to great teams?

This is interesting new research from the CIPD, which reviews lots of studies into high performing teams and identifies the group-level factors influencing team effectiveness.

Two aspects stand out as being especially important:

=> Psychological safety

=> “Cognitive Consensus” (how team members define and think about issues)

Some of the report’s conclusions:

=> Diverse teams can be high-performing teams

=> Different personalities can be team players

=> Team dynamics are vital for performance, such as:

– Trust between team members

– Psychological safety

– Team cohesion

=> Team dynamics are especially important for virtual work

=> Organising team knowledge improves performance

=> Well-planned interventions can increase team effectiveness.

Here’s the link:

#PsychologicalSafety #Teamwork #Leadership #HR #EmployeeExperience #PeopleAnalytics #BehavioralScience #Trust #EmployeeEngagement #Inclusion

High performance requires a combination of discipline AND entrepreneurship

I’ve always liked this picture, which comes from Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great”. It’s something that we also see in our research into EX leadership. This combination is difficult to get right, but it is key for great performance, not just at an organisational level, but at a team level too. Of course, navigating the “tension” here depends on trust and psychological safety.

Jim Collins talks about the importance of:

=> Hiring and developing self-disciplined people (so leaders can “manage the system” rather than individuals).

=> Disciplined thought, as in: “Confronting the brutal facts of reality, while retaining faith that you can create a path to success.”

=> Disciplined action (the ability to focus on the most critical things). In my experience, many organsiations fall down here with too many priorities and too much complicatedness.

And he highlights the need to build a culture around “the idea of freedom and responsibility within a framework”.

Where would you put your own team or organisation in a matrix like this?

#Leadership #OrganizationalCulture #EmployeeExperience #Creativity

#BehavioralScience #Trust #PsychologicalSafety #Innovation


Types of Conversation

How can you understand different kinds of conversation in the workplace? => This is still a useful framework for thinking about types of employee voice. It’s based on Bill Gorden’s two-spectrum model.

** To what extent is voice is active? (e.g., given openly)

** And is it constructive? (e.g., an exchange)

You can identify 4 quadrants:

=> Active constructive, e.g., “principled dissent” and “dialogue”

=> Passive constructive, e.g., “attentive listening” and “quiet non-verbal support”

=> Passive destructive, e.g., “I just work here”-type responses and “calculative silence”

=> Active destructive, e.g., “duplicity” and “badmouthing”

The model is from 1988 and you can see the links to early work on psychological safety.

You can read more here:

What can you do with this framework? Well, there is also a lot written about “Active Constructive Responding” in coaching, for example, which I associate with the work of Shelly Gable (and others).

#EmployeeExperience #EmployeeEngagement #EmployeeVoice

#Leadership #Conversation #BehavioralScience #PsychologicalSafety

Reflecting Edgar Schein’s ideas

This is a powerful review by MIT of five of Edgar Schein’s most enduring ideas:

1. Coercive persuasion

2. Career anchors and dynamics

3. Organization culture

4. Humble inquiry and leadership

5. Organization change

His work on culture is still relevant as people continue to zero-in on visible artifacts & symbols, rather than explore underlying assumptions. He also examined the way culture, leadership, and organizational transformation intersect.

Another major contribution (certainly in my area) is in process consulting, where he called out the importance of shifting from a “doctor-patient” relationship to one based on active and collaborative enquiry and group problem solving.

What an amazing body of work.

Here’s the link: “5 enduring management ideas from MIT Sloan’s Edgar Schein | MIT Sloan”

#Leadership #OrganizationalCulture #EmployeeExperience

EX Newsletter – Autumn 2022


Here’s the autumn edition of my newsletter. The days shorten, the temperature drops, the heating bills go up, and I’m a bit worried the content here won’t cheer you up. 🙁

Two excellent articles have analysed data from social networks to measure employee experience. First up, Don and Charles Sull have mined Glassdoor to identify what leads to toxic work cultures. Their answer: bad leadership and poor work design. Second, a bunch of folks from MIT, Harvard and Stanford have explored LinkedIn connections to understand the effects of strong and weak ties on job mobility. Both are examples of analysing “passive data” in order to understand behaviour through networks (an area of growing interest).

Talking of social connections, when I started doing research into engagement (all those years ago!) I never expected that isolation and loneliness would emerge as a key theme. But it is. In the UK, one-in-five employees feel lonely at work. Importantly, only one-in-ten would ever tell their manager about it. This article by Rachel Botsman (one of my favourite writers) is to the point.

Maybe what’s needed is more compassionate leadership. To that end, this paper by Mark Mortensen and Heidi Gardner looks at how leaders can show compassion without compromising on performance; in their words “being kind and high-performing”.

When it comes to changing culture, I found this article by Roger Martin very insightful. “Culture change depends on micro-interventions: small adjustments to the structure, dynamics, or framing of interpersonal interactions, applied consistently over time.” That’s something I agree with – lots of incremental changes that can add up to something big, even transformative.

I’ve been out and about presenting at conferences recently. It’s great to meet people in person. I’ve been talking about using analytics to better support employees in a cost of living crisis. I’ve also discussed wellbeing and the need to focus on organisational health and resilience. (Someone called this “the state of the world according to Nick” presentation, which I think is fair as I cover a lot of ground, from geopolitics to neuroscience!) Links to my slides from both these presentations are below.

People Analytics and the Cost of Living Crisis

Wellbeing and Resilient Agility

As always, let me know what you make of these articles, and feel free to share this newsletter with other colleagues and contacts:

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If by some horrendous luck you received this newsletter by both email and from Substack, just let me know and I will remove you from one or the other.

Take care and best wishes,


EX Newsletter Autumn 2021


Here is the autumn edition of my EX Newsletter.

Over the last few months, we have been doing a lot of work on the connection between culture and EX, and that’s reflected in the content below. Both topics are top of mind for many leaders I’m working with. I think this is because there are just so many things happening that are impacting trust at work – witness “The Great Resignation” – that it’s important to reflect on key principles about purpose and alignment.

John Kotter’s new book Change is one of my favourites of the year and I highly recommend it. He incorporates research from neuroscience with his long-standing focus on organisational culture and change. This article is a useful summary of his approach:

I like this idea of “a people-centered operating system” from Vivek Sharma, with a focus on goal setting, learning, and culture. In this short article, he argues that the future of work is really about the future of talent, which is something I strongly agree with:

I am very interested in new and different sources of EX data, so Culture X’s research into Glassdoor reviews is something I’ve been following closely. This is another great article from them, which highlights the fundamental importance of respect and leadership:

My colleague John Bremen has written a series of terrific articles on human capital issues and I really enjoyed this one on “workplace dignity”. He talks about dignity at work, dignity in work, and dignity from work:

I hope you find these articles useful; let me know!


Five reasons why there’s so much interest in employee experience

The Global Talent Trends report by LinkedIn is one of many studies to show that HR and business leaders are making a priority of employee experience (EX).

Elsewhere, I have defined what I mean by EX and argued that it’s more than a fad. Looking beyond the buzz, there are key reasons why EX has become a serious focus for leaders:

  1. It is widely accepted that employee experience matters for business performance. Even if you haven’t analysed your own people and business data, most leaders can see that employee experience is important in delivering great customer experiences, especially in a digital world. At an operational level, if the tools and systems that you use internally are clunky and time-consuming, there will be a knock-on effect for customers in terms of agility and service. Businesses increasingly compete on the basis of the experiences they deliver to customers. This means that collaboration, simplification and end-to-end thinking become even more critical capabilities.
  2. Leaders are aware of the risks of not understanding employee experience. You can argue that Boeing is the latest in a long line of companies to get into trouble by not understanding the experience of key workers. Boeing’s leaders were apparently blind to the fact that staff were so critical of arrangements for the 737 Max. Another recent example is the fashion retailer Ted Baker. The company suffered serious damage to its reputation when incidents of “forced hugging” were exposed publicly in the rise of the #MeToo movement. Listening to employees needs to be a leadership focus even (or perhaps especially) during moments of crisis, such as the financial crash and the current pandemic. These are times when your values are tested. For Tracy Maylett and Matthew Wride, these are key “moments of truth” for EX and trust.
  3. Partly in response, EX is getting board-level and external attention. In the UK, for example, the Corporate Governance Code has brought in a higher level of employee involvement and a focus on internal culture. Many companies have doubled-down on employee listening as a result; making sure they can demonstrate that employee input is given greater prominence. Related to this is a broader focus on corporate sustainability that emphasises the perspectives of all stakeholders, including employees. Investors also have an appetite for better workforce reporting and greater transparency. This interest is only going to grow, given that intangibles such as human capital increasingly drive value in a knowledge- or experience-based economy. One-in-three large companies already use people metrics in executive pay design; the most common metrics are EX-related (culture and engagement).
  4. Another important reason for focusing on EX is because inclusion and diversity is under the spotlight. In the UK, for example, where progress on I&D has been slow, large companies have to report gender pay gaps (and perhaps in the future BAME pay gaps as well). These pay gaps arise because of long-term and persistent trends. Traditional approaches only provide crude insights into these trends. An EX lens can be far more useful in terms of understanding problems and finding solutions. This often involves more continuous listening, focused on key cohorts and networks, especially at critical moments.
  5. One underlying or structural reason for making a priority of EX is the widespread impact of digital transformation on work, jobs and organisations. The speed of digital transformation has accelerated during the coronavirus crisis, by necessity, but it is a longer-term and ongoing force for change. To operate a successful digital business requires a focus on culture and behaviour as well as systems. Effective digital processes depend on collaboration and end-to-end thinking. In turn, this requires a change in leadership mindset, away from hierarchy and control towards involvement and transparency. This is a big shift for many organisations and for many leaders. By focusing on EX, you can build trust and help establish sustainable change.

You can add other reasons to this list. They may include things like generational changes in the workforce and changing expectations regarding personalisation and feedback.

What strikes me is that, in my 20 years’ of working in employee insights, I haven’t seen as much interest as there is now in measuring and activating employee experience.

Because of this, however, it’s especially important to be mindful about your overall approach and how it should evolve. This will include, for example, your overall listening strategy, the data you have available for integrated analytics, your level of EX maturity, the degree of trust that exists in your organisation, and your change leadership capability.

Given that EX has become such a priority, you need to think strategically and systemically about it. In particular, you need to prioritise the areas where employee experience can answer the most critical questions and provide the greatest business value.

Let me know your thoughts on this and any other reasons that you would add to the list.

Feel free to also contact me here or on Twitter @nickl4.

You can read more about EX Leadership here as well.

Tags: #EmployeeExperience #EmployeeEngagement #PeopleAnalytics

This article was first published on LinkedIn on May 12, 2020.