Alla Weinberg helps teams and organizations improve the quality of relationships at work. She has a background in design, but now calls herself a ‘work relationship expert.’ In this conversation, we discuss her new book, A Culture of Safety, and how teams can create environments that allow people to do their best work together.
Listen to the show
- @IamAllaW on Twitter
- Alla Weinberg on LinkedIn
- Spoke & Wheel (Alla’s consulting company)
- A Culture of Safety: Building a work environment where people can think, collaborate and innovate by Alla Weinberg
- Scientific Management (Taylorism)
- Frederick Winslow Taylor
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Read the transcript
Jorge: Alla, welcome to the show.
Alla: Thank you so much for having me.
Jorge: Well, I’m excited to have you on the show. For folks who might not know you. Can you please introduce yourself?
Alla: Hi everyone! My name is Alla Weinberg. I consider myself a work relationship expert, and I work with team leaders to create trusting teams and cultures of safety.
Jorge: I think that you are the first work relationship expert I’ve met. What does that entail?
Alla: That entails looking at and mapping — actually creating visual maps — of how people relate to each other at work. And when I say relate, I mean think, feel, and behave, towards each other. And I do that for a team, and I create visual maps so the team can visualize their own dynamics and see what’s working relationally on a team and what’s not working, with the thought that seeing something, making the invisible visible, you can improve it. Even if it’s not… it doesn’t necessarily have to be anything’s going wrong. It can be just how can we even be better at working together at relating to each other so that we can, as a team, use our collective intelligence, you know, to serve the work that we’re doing to serve the company in the greater purpose that we have as a team.
Jorge: Are you brought into organizations by people in the human resources department?
Alla: I’m usually brought in by team leaders. So, a leader of a business org, or even a smaller team. And because of my design background, I generally have been brought in by design leaders to talk to, and to work with design teams specifically.
Jorge: Okay How did you come from design to this field of human relationships?
Alla: Yeah. I was a designer and a researcher for about 10 years, and I got to a place in my career where I didn’t feel satisfied and happy. It wasn’t quite a fit for what I wanted to do. And I hired a coach for myself — a life coach — to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and my career. And through that I learned, “Oh, I actually want to do this thing — this coaching thing! I want to do that for designers.” And so, I went and I got trained to do it. I got certified to do our… took a lot of courses in it. And through actually a lot of trial and error, I sort of designed my way into this career.
Because at first, I just did, you know, career coaching for designers. And then I did leadership coaching for design leaders, and I still do some of that. And eventually I got to the place where I noticed what is the thing that really matters to me? What are the conversations that I keep having over and over again with people and it always has to do with relationships? You know, I’m having trouble with somebody that’s reporting to me. Or I’m having trouble with my leader. We’re not getting along. They don’t understand me. They don’t hear me. You know, oftentimes in the design field people are like how do we get a seat at the table? Well, a lot of that has to do with relationships.
What kind of relationships do people have with senior leadership? And, you know, also design having relationships, often tense relationships, with other cross-functional teams, right? Development, product management, et cetera. And I noticed that that’s just what I deeply care about, and I want to change in the world. But also reflecting on my own career as a designer, that’s where I felt like that was missing for me. That was a lot of where I felt unsatisfied in my career. I wanted better relationships at work. I wanted deeper relationships at work. And now I want to help others do the same so that we can do great work together. It’s not just for touchy, feely reasons.
It’s so people can have access to their full intelligence and do great work together. And relationships are a big part of that. So I kind of got there through a lot of trying different things and being like “no, not quite it!” And landing here finally. And this is… honestly, last year in 2020, because of COVID and having a lot of time to reflect, I finally landed in this place where like… yeah, like I’m a full, yes! This is definitely what I want to be doing. And this is what I want to be focusing on.
Jorge: Well, congratulations. I’m sure that’s a very satisfying feeling. It sounds like you’ve found your thing. What I heard there is that you’re usually brought in by team leaders. Are they bringing you in because they have spotted some kind of dysfunction in their team or that things could be going better?
Alla: That’s usually the case. What usually happens is a team leader will see some kind of engagement results, like an engagement survey within an organization, that’s showing that the design team specifically, or just their team if it’s not that design team, is… the engagement scores are low and also that maybe trust is low and psychological safety is low, on the team.
There may also be times when I’m brought in because the team isn’t quite… there is a lot of tension or there’s a lot of things that aren’t being said to the leader themselves. So like the leader isn’t seeing the work. People are afraid to show work to them and they’re seeing it too late. Or they’re in a meeting like, you know, a staff meeting, and nobody’s talking. There’s crickets.
I was recently brought in to work with a design ops team, where not… I mean, the team is actually great and they get along well with each other. They have great relationships with each other, but when they come together as a group: crickets! Like, there’s no contributions. Nothing! They’re not talking, they’re not having the conversations that need to be had. People aren’t questioning things. People aren’t pushing on things. How can things be better? There’s just nothing.
And so the leader brought me in to say, “okay, well what’s going on here? I don’t even understand! What’s going on here?” And so this is where visualizing the team dynamics and also doing exercises that help build team trust and safety come into play so that people start to feel okay to speak up, but it’ll even have an invitation about what do we speak up about specifically. So, even knowing that is important.
A Culture of Safety
Jorge: You spoke of psychological safety and trust as two of the goals — if I might call them goals — of the work. One of the reasons why you’re on the show now is that you’ve just published a book on this subject, and I was hoping that you would tell us a bit about the book.
Alla: The book is really about, again, as a team leader, how you can create safety on your team. And in the book, I go beyond just psychological safety. I talk about three different types of safety, which is physical safety, emotional safety, and then psychological safety. And those three different types of safety map neurologically to how we, as human beings, are wired.
So first, as a human being, I need to know… and this is more of like, my nervous system needs to know, that I’m physically safe. My physical body and my life is not in danger and feel relaxed around that. And before I can even have psychological safety, I need to know my body safe. So, my body is safe and then next I need to know I’m emotionally safe. It’s okay to have all my feelings. It’s okay to express my feelings. It’s safe to connect emotionally to another human being. That I won’t be hurt or that the relationship won’t end. And then when I feel relaxed and safe there, then and only then can I achieve psychological safety, which is, “I feel okay and relaxed to share ideas, to contradict somebody to disagree, to take a risk,” in that sense. And so, in the book, I talk about very practical ways how a team leader can start to create first physical safety, then emotional safety, then psychological safety.
Jorge: That distinction is central to the book. It does come across. And I had a question about physical safety, because the way that you’ve explained it now is very clear to me. I’m almost picturing like Maslow’s Pyramid…
Alla: Heirarchy, right.
Jorge: Yeah, where there’s a baseline, and the baseline in this case is physical safety. This idea that I am not in fear for life and limb, right? At a minimum, I’m going to come to work and feel like, I’m going to be able to leave intact by the — physically intact — by the end of the day. I highlighted a passage in the book where you say that you define physical safety as the shared belief that everybody is valued, respected, and included. And that… I was having a hard time distinguishing between that and psychological safety. So, first of all, I’m wondering if I’m reading it right?
Alla: Right. So, there’s a little difference here. It’s like where every body — meaning physical body. I think there’s a little typo actually in the book, from the publisher. But it meant to be two words. ‘Every body’ meaning physical body is valued, respected, and included.
Jorge: That makes a lot of sense, and this is an incredible example of how one small punctuation issue changes the meaning of a phrase. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because then it does speak to this idea that we are talking about this, you know, my physical matter at work here.
Alla: And then the important thing about this — about physical safety specifically — it’s not a conscious process for us in the way that our brain works. It’s not that people are sitting there often consciously being afraid of their physical selves. Although sometimes if they’re feeling microaggressions or really, you know, underrepresented in the workforce, that may be even a conscious feeling. But a lot of times it’s unconscious and our nervous system, especially our autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of rest and digestion and heart rate and all of that.
So, all of those unconscious functions that we have, it’s taking in information from all our five senses, all of the time. That’s called neuroception. So, our nervous system is taking in this information and it’s constantly… all it’s doing is constantly checking. “Am I safe? Is my body physically safe?” And it cannot tell the difference between a lion out there or an angry boss. It cannot tell the difference. To the body, the signal is, “oh no, my physical body is in danger.”
But if we even take it one step further, if let’s say your job is at stake because you look different or you have different abilities, or there’s something physically different about you, then the majority of the people in your workforce and your job is at stake as a result of that, and you have fear around losing your job as a result of that, that still impacts physical safety, because your ability to financially provide for yourself and take care of your physical needs, right? Shelter, food, clothing, et cetera, is impacted by your body. And so that’s all still part of ensuring physical safety.
Jorge: My expectation would be that… and I have to say it like this because I don’t feel I’ve ever personally felt this way in work environment and can only imagine how detrimental it would be to feel threatened. But I would imagine that it creates a vicious cycle where if you don’t feel like you can trust the environment that would lead you to — I’m going to use the word underperform — in various ways, which would perpetuate the perception that somehow you’re not contributing as much, right?
Alla: Exactly. And what I found in my research when writing the book, and I think this was one of my biggest aha’s, but also my personal experience as well, is that, when I have not felt safe in an environment, and that can be in any of the three levels of safety? So physically, emotionally, or psychologically, I found in research that our operating IQ — so our ability to think, to analyze, to be creative, to form, you know, rational thoughts — drops by half. So, if my normal operating IQ is, let’s say, at a hundred points, when I don’t feel safe in an environment, it drops to 50. And this is again, a very human biological thing because our body and our brain will take resources away from our frontal cortex, which is where we think, and it will redistribute it to other parts to keep us alive, to keep us safe. And so, we can’t perform at our best, because we can’t think at our best when we don’t have that level of safety.
And so, this is why to me, this is absolutely foundational to any team. Before you can talk about high-performance, before you can talk about velocity of a team, before you can talk about creativity or innovation, first the safety has to exist so that people have access to their intelligence. And then collectively as a team have access to their collective intelligence and be able to, you know, complete the purpose or perform in the way that the company or the team is looking to do.
Jorge: How do you evaluate the degree of safety in an environment?
Alla: I usually do it in a qualitative way where I will interview team members. And I look at two specific dimensions. I look at the dimension that I call power. Which is, are there practices, rituals, meetings, places and spaces for people to relate in a way that drives action forward? So, are there times where we as a team talk about direction, purpose, leadership, strategy… those kinds of things. Are we having those conversations? When are those conversations happening? How often are they happening and how do they go? How do those conversations go? And then the second dimension I look at is love. So, do we have conversations about just our own struggles? Our own humanity? The pain that we’re going through as human beings. Do we talk about diversity? Do we talk about how we communicate with each other and what can be improved?
So, I look at the types of conversations that people are having and how those conversations are going. How well are they happening? Because those are the meeting points where people relate to each other. That’s how people relate to each other. And so, if there’s a deficiency in either dimension, it’s going to create a specific dynamic within a group.
Jorge: These are two words that when I consider them in the context of the work environment: raise… the listeners to the show can’t see my eyebrows shooting up when you say ‘power’ and ‘love.’ How is that received inside organizations using this terminology?
Alla: I use it very intentionally to be provocative. So, it usually elicits some kind of emotional reaction from people, but it also creates an opening to discuss about what’s really going on. And I feel like those are two dimensions of relationship — of relating. And so, yeah, I don’t think it’s an easy pill to swallow — for anyone. But I also think this is where we as organizations need to go. Like, we need to start having these conversations and start talking about love, at work, and start talking about power, at work. All of those exist or don’t exist at work anyway. I’m just being very direct and naming it. And maybe that’s my Russian coming through, but I’m just being direct about it and naming, “hey, like these things are in play. Let’s look at them directly and talk about them directly.”
Jorge: I can imagine someone whose mindset about work is all about performance and all about optimization of resources, whether they be financial resources, people’s time, that sort of thing. And I would imagine that for somebody like that, this idea that we need to have spaces dedicated to love in the work context might feel… I was going to use the word in tension with… let’s say that, in tension with, the M.O. of, “this is business and we’re just going to go for it and go for it at max speed.” I mean, I don’t know if you’ve encountered that type of situation, but how do you deal with that kind of environment?
Alla: I guess in that environment, it just shows me the maturity level of people’s understanding of basically how people work together and that it’s still in an early stage of maturing. And those kinds of beliefs are held over beliefs from the industrial era, especially Taylorism. I was trying to remember the word. Especially Taylorism! Taylorism… basically Frederick Taylor came up with this model in the industrial era, that managers are the ones that come up with the ideas, and workers are the ones that execute on those ideas. They don’t have to think they just execute on the ideas.
And that may have worked to some degree on an assembly line, but no longer holds true. But with it comes this belief that strips people — that strips workers, employees — of their humanity. There are no longer humans. They’re resources. that need to perform like machines, right? So, there’s a specific worldview and the work that we’re trying to do, and the work in the companies I often consult with, you know, tech companies, fintech companies, those kinds of spaces… even healthcare! Workers now have to think! We have to solve problems. There is so much complexity that’s no longer a manager can tell employees, “Just do this thing,” and they just go execute and do it. They have to think and be able to problem solve.
So, if a team leader or manager wants their team to move fast, wants their team to be able to solve complex problems, wants their team to have access to their intelligence… all the things that they’re wanting, all the outcomes that they’re wanting, this performance outcome that they’re wanting, to get there, the team needs to feel safe in working together. So, they need to know how to work together well. We can no longer assume people are working by themselves on an assembly line, just doing their one task and then passing it onto the next person. We have to collaborate with each other. We all work in teams and cross-functional teams, right? And so, in order for that to be effective, we have to build trust as human beings for that to happen.
And again, as I mentioned, biologically, having that safety allows people to be able to have access to their full operating IQ. And it’s no longer wasted on anxiety, worrying about what should I say/not say, feeling scared if I’m going to get fired if I don’t do something or I do something, working around somebody… like, I’ve had many times in my career relationships at work that were very distressing to me. That weren’t working, kept me up at night, you know, I didn’t sleep well. I was anxious. I often cried because of it. I didn’t know how to fix it. But then what I did was avoid the person. I worked around them. Tried to not meet with them.
That creates so many blockages, to getting the work done, to getting the outcomes, that let’s say a rational person is wanting. This is why I feel so passionate about relationships and focusing on relationships. Because when that is working, everything else works. Like the work actually happens and you get all the things that leaders want. You get the speed, you get the quality, you get the innovation, you get the creativity. All of it. So, I guess to me, it’s like, that’s the how. Like, if you want that, this is the, how. It is what I’m proposing.
Jorge: There’s a quote that you cite towards the end of the book from John Augustus Shedd. It says, “a ship is safe in a harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for.”
Alla: I love that one.
Creating a culture of safety
Jorge: I loved it too. I wrote that down because that was great. And in the spirit of encouraging our listeners to be seaworthy vessels some sort, what can folks do to be more effective at helping create a culture of safety in their teams and their organizations.
Alla: I love this question because it will touch on two things. One is if we look at it from an information architecture standpoint, what folks can do to create a culture of safety is to see what categories, what types of conversations to evaluate, that are happening on their team. And that are not happening on their team. Oftentimes, people will have many types of conversations and meetings about the work, very tactical conversations. Are you having conversations about humanity, about your struggles, about getting to know each other as human beings at a deeper level? Are you having conversations where you do bring up tensions? Where do you bring up conflict? Very intentionally, you have space to process tensions, process conflict, and have space for those conversations. Are you having conversations where people can — and especially leaders — can express mistakes and admit mistakes? And apologize for them and learn from them together.
So, from a categorization perspective, what are the conversations you’re having and not having as a team? So, you just evaluate that. What’s the balance of that? Maybe you have some conversations about tactics, about strategy and some about humanity and struggles and who we are as people. And maybe you’re having more of one or the other. And the goal here isn’t that you have to have all the conversations all the time, but that there’s a balance. That you’re balancing doing the work with talking about who we are as people and how we do the work. And in the book, I recommend several types of meetings — structures — that people can then start to have those different types of conversations: talking about how folks are feeling, talking about what our boundaries are — our physical boundaries are — with each other, as a team. You know, talking about mistakes, talking about what our hopes and fears are for a project that we’re about to kick off.
What kind of conversations are you having? So, really, really start to think about that and take a sort of self-evaluation even, of that. And then there’s that question of, you know, how do I know what to say? What’s okay to say? How do I not offend anyone? When you have that level of safety with people, like you will know you’ll have safety because you as an individual and wholly, as a team will feel relaxed that you’re not worried about offending somebody because you know, you have a strong enough relationship with this person that they can say to you, “that really offended me.” And you can say, “wow, you know? I did hurt you. I feel that. I’m sorry.” And that can be the conversation you have.
Or somebody can say, “wow, I really disagree with you here. I think we’re going in the completely wrong direction!” And you can feel safe enough to engage in a… and I even suggested in the book, to have a little sparring meeting, you know? Where you have that creative tension, where you say, “okay, let’s try to really deeply understand each other and where we’re coming from and how we got to our stance so that we can find a third way — a creative way — to solve this problem. That’s not my way. And it’s not your way. It’s the third way.”
And so, safety actually creates and allows for space, for tension, for correction, for repair. In every relationship, there’s a cycle of connection, disconnection, reconnection. And what we are completely missing in the workplace right now are spaces for connecting to each other, speaking about times we are disconnected with each other and having opportunities to repair and reconnect with each other, as individuals and as a team as well.
Jorge: Well Alla, thank you so much for making the space for us to have this conversation and connect. Where can folks follow up with you?
Alla: They can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. My Twitter handle is @IamAllaW and then my website, spokeandwheel.co (dot. co)
Jorge: And where can folks find the book?
Alla: It’s on Amazon. So, just search Culture Of Safety on Amazon.
Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us,
Alla: Thank you!