Ep. 249 - Alla Weinberg, Author of A Culture of Safety: Building a Work Environment Where People Can Think Collaborate and Innovate
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On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Alla Weinberg, Author of the new book, A Culture of Safety: Building a Work Environment Where People Can Think Collaborate and Innovate. Alla and I talk about how companies can increase their efficiencies, their collaboration, and their velocity of output, simply by focusing on developing physical, emotional, and psychological safety in the workplace.
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Interview Transcript of Alla Weinberg, Author of A Culture of Safety
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Alla Weinberg. She is Author of A Culture of Safety: Building a Work Environment Where People Can Think Collaborate and Innovate. Welcome to the show.
Alla Weinberg: Thanks, Brian. So happy to be here.
Brian Ardinger: I am excited to have you here. One of the things I was doing in preparation for this particular call, was I was looking at your website. You're a founder of a company called Spoke and Wheel where you help companies build cultures, where people feel safe and respected and able to do their best work. And you have a quote on your website that 82% of employees don't trust their boss to tell the truth. Clearly that's a problem.
Alla Weinberg: So that's the problem
Brian Ardinger: I wanted to start there. What's the state of today's workplace?
Alla Weinberg: I think especially with COVID and, the very sudden move to remote work, it's even harder to build trust with coworkers, with employees, because we don't even see each other in person anymore.
And if you want to have those social interactions, that has to be very intentional. So, you have to create a meeting and set that on the calendar. And a lot of times trust is built over time in those very small moments. That I remembered, you know, that you had an anniversary and I wished you a happy anniversary because we had a conversation about that, where I asked about how, you know, the health of your dog is doing. Small life things that just get built up in the very small moments, that get built up over time. And we're definitely missing that right now in our work environments, especially virtually.
Brian Ardinger: It has definitely changed the workspace, but that this was affecting before COVID. There was a lot of issues around trust and safety and things like, let's go back a little bit in time and tell us how you got involved in writing and focused on this particular subject.
Alla Weinberg: So, I got inspired to write this book based on my own experience. I spent two years working in a global multinational enterprise level company, where I felt unsafe for two years. And it started to really affect my health, my mental health, my physical health, my emotional health. And it got to the point where I didn't want to physically, when we still are doing that, go to the office, go to work anymore.
And I eventually ended up leaving that experience. And from that, I've really decided, Hey, you know, the way that we're working together now isn't working. I want to help people like myself create work environments where they feel safe, where you want to go to work, where you can do your best work. And you're really excited to do the work together.
And the other thing is that I realized is especially in a corporate world, it's very, still very much focused on the individual. You know, we have individual performance reviews. We have individual bonuses as bonus structures, promotions, et cetera. But very little of the work that we do is really at the individual level. We have to do work in teams together with other people. And that's where things tend to fall apart. That's where there's a lot of room for improvement, I think.
Brian Ardinger: So, what does a culture of safety look like? You mentioned a couple different things in your experience where not only psychological safety, emotional safety, physical safety, what does a culture of safety look like?
Alla Weinberg: Culture of safety and as you mentioned, looks like three different and three different levels. So physical safety, meaning I feel safe in my body. Like it feels like I fit in. It feels that I belong regardless of size, of color, of gender, of age, of the number of art that I have on my body. You know, my body can fit in and I feel safe in my body.
And this is biologically how we're wired. Because, you know, tens of thousands of years ago, we used to live in tribes, and we relied on that group to survive. So, people in the tribe looked out for us, literally for our physical safety. So, if a lion was coming or a different member from a different tribe was coming to attack us, we would be protected by other people.
And so, it's still to this day, how our brain is wired. So, when we're at work, we want to still feel that other people will value our physical bodies and that we're safe with them. And safety in itself just means I'm internally relaxed. My nervous system is relaxed. I'm not anxious, worried on alert, ready to fight or flight.
I feel open. I feel open to connection. I feel open to new ideas. This is where innovation comes in. There's a sense of relaxation around that. And I'm not worried about, Hey, how do I say something to this person? Should I say anything? What do I say? If I say anything at all. There's no like strategizing or calculating that's happening in the background.
And part of that is being able to share your feelings with someone and that's a very vulnerable thing to do, but it's very much missing from the workplace. Trust comes from sharing vulnerably. So, if I say to you, Hey, you know, it really hurts my feelings when you don't reply to my Slack messages, I'm being vulnerable and I'm sharing my feelings.
But I'm also saying to you in a lot of ways, I want to connect with you. I want to have a good working relationship with you. This is what's going on. And if I can say that and feel like you can receive it, you know, well, and you're like, Oh wow. You know, I really didn't know that you were feeling that way. We can have a conversation about it.
Then next time, when I have an idea, I'll feel much safer to say too. It's like, Oh, I have this idea about this direction we should go in. What do you think? I won't think twice. I won't hesitate. I won't to calculate when sharing that idea.
Brian Ardinger: Can you give me some examples of where these particular types of safety come into play. Where can companies actually start redefining or looking, or even evaluating where they stand when it comes to these types of safety?
Alla Weinberg: Yeah. I've actually been thinking a lot about that this morning. Funnily enough, I wanted to write a series of posts about where do you begin. Where does a company start to evaluate this. You have to start at physical safety. You have to have physical safety first before you can have emotional safety. And before you can have psychological safety. I know a lot of folks have heard about psychological safety from Google's work. Google Aristotle project from Amy Edmondson's work, Fearless Organization.
And a lot of companies are like, Oh, we want psychological safety, but you can't have that without physical safety first. And that's just the way our brain is wired. That's just kind of human in that respect. And so, the place to start is, a lot of it is having to do in the diversity equity, inclusion, and belonging space.
So really thinking about how are we making it safe for different people's bodies. So, if your body is a different color than the majority of the executive team or the management team, how are we actually creating safety for people that look different than leadership? Do we have spaces? What I recommend is looking at do we have spaces such as meetings, specific meetings set up where people of color can come and talk to each other and support each other.
And this is not an ERG group. This is specifically a group where people that are alike each other can come together and support each other. But also look at your promotion practices or how was that working? Why are there not people of color in your executive team, in your leadership, amongst your leadership levels?
A lot of times what companies do is they'll promote people based on experience in a similar role. But if you can't get that experience because of the way your body looks, then you're never going to be promoted today. Are we taking any chances on people, even though they don't have example X number of years of experience on it, because we believe in these people because they're capable and not just because they were at a disadvantage?
Brian Ardinger: It almost requires you taking a different set of filters to look at how you apply towards what you're trying to accomplish.
Alla Weinberg: Yeah, and I think that's right. Like, I think it's actually questioning the filters that you have built in, in the first place. What are those filters in the first place? Let's question them. But even at a more fundamental level, the conversation that no company is currently having that I'm aware of, unless I'm facilitating that conversation, is around physical boundaries that people have and about their bodies.
Do people need to be on camera all the time? What kind of choices do people have around that? What kind of choices do people have around when they work, the time that they work? Does it matter that they're working nine to five on a specific time zone, or does it just matter that the output, like that they're giving you the work that you're wanting?
All of that has to do with being able to have time and space, to really take care of our bodies as human beings. But we need to have those conversations because for every team that's different, that kind of rhythm is different. And so even just having the conversation, like, what do I need to take care of my body? What does this team need or want agree to so that we can still work together? And yet honor everybody's bodily needs. Those are not conversations that are being had, but definitely need to be.
Brian Ardinger: And that's a great point. It seems like a lot of this conversation around cultural safety and that it starts, or is being driven by HR, or that's where it kind of resides. But it seems to me that, from what you're saying, and the experience that you've had, is it's got to be driven beyond an HR type of initiative.
So, what are some things that the teams can do or an individual within a company that may not necessarily have the power to make these kinds of changes? What can they do to move the needle in the right direction?
Alla Weinberg: Well, my recommendation is always if you're in an individual, for example, to just start closing. So, start with your team. Start with the smallest area that you can affect and start to create safety there. So, I would recommend having these types of conversations. You can schedule them as an individual person, having these conversations with your team.
Let's talk about our boundaries. Let's talk about how we're feeling, especially about, you know, the latest current event that might be happening and how that's affecting you. Let's have a brainstorm ideation session. You know, people can still start to create spaces for safety to get built. It's not like safety is something you can say, Oh, check, we have that.
Or you should just feel safe. It's safe here. Nobody's going to feel that anyway. It's something that emerges over time. It builds over time, that when people can say, Hey, we can have these conversations and there was no retaliation, and I didn't get fired and I didn't lose a promotion. Right. Like I was able to have this kind of conversation and be honest and open with my teammates.
And I was able to share an idea and we debated it and it was great. And some part of it made it through to the next round. Or I was able to really tell my team, I was struggling with my health. And they let me know that I can take some time off and they would pick up some of the slack. Right. Just being able to have some of these conversations with your team, just start with your team is enough, is enough to start to create that bubble of safety for everyone.
And then the next question that most people ask is, well, I feel safe with my team, but I don't with my manager. Right. Kind of go into the statistics that you mentioned, that's on my website. What do I do? So, if you do feel safe with your team, then you, as a team can come together and talk about what's the conversation to have with your leader.
This isn't about blaming your leader or like this is all the leader’s fault, but actually coming up with what do we as a team need from our leader that we're not getting. What do we need to ask for from our leader? And then having that conversation with the leader as a team. Like in a very kind way. I would say in a very caring way to say, hey, you know, we're really struggling here.
This is what we need. Let's work together to figure out how to meet your needs as a leader, because I'm sure the leader has their own pressures. And as a team. What doesn't work is if one individual from the team goes to the leader and tries to affect change, because it's just one person, then the leader is just going to try to work with that one individual.
But if it's really a team issue, then it can be a team conversation. And again, it's much safer to have this conversation as a group, as a team, that supports each other that has each other's back than just one person having this conversation.
Brian Ardinger: So, let's dig into the book a little bit more. A culture of safety is, is the name of the book. Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that people can expect to get out of it from a tactical perspective?
Alla Weinberg: What I offer in the book are very practical exercises and meeting practices that can help team leaders mostly like this is who I wrote it for because it's really for a team leader to bring to their team. And then when I say at a team leader, I mean, it can be a team leader of individual contributors, manager of managers, or even at the C level suite, a leadership team. To bring to their team to create safety within their team.
Kind of the first set of practices in the book is just for the leader individually, to be able to regulate your own nervous system. So that, you can create that environment, that space for people to come together and talk honestly, and candidly and vulnerably with each other. But if you're coming to the conversation as a leader with a lot of fear, because the opposite of safety isn't danger, it's fear. That's what I propose in my book.
If you're coming to these conversations with a lot of fear, it’s not gonna, you're not going to create an environment where it's safe. And so, the first job of a leader is to be able to regulate your own nervous system so that you feel calm. You feel centered. I almost think of it as like a pillar, like a column, you know, a Greek column that holds up a building where you're solid, strong and steady, regardless of the hurricane that may be going on around you.
Right. And the way our human bodies work, when someone feels solid. Someone feels safe. Someone feels calm in their body. Our bodies, our nervous systems will regulate to that. And so, the team will then feel more relaxed, more solid, and be able to have some of the conversations then that need to be had. So, conversations around our boundaries, conversations around our emotions, conversations around our ideas.
Brian Ardinger: Is there a timing issue with these types of conversations? Is it better to bring it up in relation to current events and things like that? Where there's something that's tangible and, and there's a specific reason driving that conversation. Or is it better to integrate it into everyday conversations and things along those lines?
Alla Weinberg: My thought is that it's better to integrate it into the day-to-day because this would be an unfamiliar conversation to have for many people in the workplace. In a lot of respects, our nervous systems need to get used to that it's safe to have these conversations and over time it will like the first conversation is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
But over time, if you continue regularly having these types of conversations, then the, you know, everybody's nervous system will be like, yeah, this is normal. This is how we talk to each other. This is part of our culture. And then when events happen, like recent events with the shootings of Asian-American women, then there's already a space to discuss that.
People will already feel safe to talk about that. And so, then people can share their experience, their feelings around these kinds of events, because that's part of the everyday culture of what we talk about as a team.
Brian Ardinger: Do you have any examples of companies where you can see the results of this? Like what can people expect to have as an outcome of creating a culture of safety within their organization?
Alla Weinberg: I mean, the biggest outcome I think is definitely a lot more of a collaborative culture. I know a lot of organizations want and say that collaboration is of value for them. But it doesn't really happen in practice. When their safety, when I can collaborate with someone naturally, what comes out of collaboration is conflict.
It's kind of the conflict rides shotgun next to collaboration. Right? Always right. Because you have a different idea and I have a different idea and that's a great, because from conflict comes Innovation. That's where innovation really happens. So, what you'll see is actually cross functional, cross departmental collaboration.
And then, I mean, true collaboration where people get in a meeting and they have productive conflict with each other and say, and they really wrestle with concepts together and it's not like, Oh, I'm going to follow my process. Let's say that the design process. And then I'm going to hand it over to development and they'll follow the Agile process to develop it. That's not collaboration. That's just waterfall. Right?
But when I see stakeholders from lots of different departments coming together, thinking through things together, having productive conflict, having that collaboration of truly working together. And again, it's more than just a shared doc, you know, then I know that people are feeling safe to do that, but I also will, you know, also I would see again, conversations within the company about how are people feeling again about recent events?
Like you actually have those conversations, not an announcement that's made by the CEO or the HR department, but it's a space. There's a space for people to talk about that and how that impacts them and what that means for them. So, we're having those types of like, there's very different types of the conversations that are being had.
And I'm going to say something edgy, something else that I would see in an organization, is I would see leadership within that organization. And I've seen that with some startups, where leadership in the organization says, hey, because of recent events and because of everything that's happening in the world, we took a really hard look at our practices and our processes and how we're running our organization. And here's where we're failing.
Where leadership says, this is where things are going wrong and this is where we're not, you know, living up to what we want or the kind of company you want to be. And that we admit that. And we're going to work towards fixing that. Rather than just, I guess, aspirational statements, right. Or that don't actually bear out.
Brian Ardinger: That, I think that's a very important point that the whole idea of conflict, is okay. And that's not something that if you have conflict, you don't have a safe environment. It's, it's more from the standpoint of you have conflict and you have a safe place to experience that conflict and resolve that conflict without fear of repercussion of that.
Alla Weinberg: Yes. I actually would say, if you don't have conflict, then you don't have a safe environment because you don't feel safe enough to disagree, to, to get into it with someone to have that conflict. Right. In essence, conflict to me shows that there is safety in the environment.
Brian Ardinger: And then obviously you have all sorts of other benefits that come from that as far as increasing morale and efficiency and that. What other things are you seeing from the companies that you work with? Where have they moved from and where are they going now? And what benefits are they really having?
Alla Weinberg: Like the biggest thing that I'm seeing is actually increase in velocity of how fast people can work. That's almost unintended, but a really wonderful benefit. I think a lot of companies certainly want that. They want faster better work. Right.
But a lot of times what gets in the way of that is people not feeling safe enough to express how they're feeling their emotions. And they kind of just hold onto it and develop grudges. And now politics starts to get in the game, and everything slows down. The work actually slows down because people are avoiding having those conversations about feelings.
And so, when they're finally able to be and I just finished working with a team where they're finally able, and we're able to say, you know, this is what I've been upset about for a year, an entire year. Suddenly a lot of intractable problems that the team was facing are no longer such a problem anymore.
They were able to come together as a team and come up with solutions and actually start to move. Actually, starts to take action. And that's the biggest benefit that I see. And Berne Brown has this quote. She says, you can spend a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or an unreasonable amount of time attending to unproductive behavior. And so, when we've been able to create safety in these teams, we've been able to increase velocity a heck of a lot more well.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: And I think that fits very well within the whole Innovation space. You know, you mentioned velocity and then the ability to actually collaborate and think through new ideas. I think it's so important to a culture of innovation as well. So I very much appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to talk about these particular subjects and why it's important in this particular space. If people want to find out more about yourself or the book, what's the best way to do that?
Alla Weinberg: Ah the best way to do that is just to go to my website, which is Spokeandwheel.co not com.
Brian Ardinger: Well Alla thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come and appreciate your time.
Alla Weinberg: Thank you so much, Brian.
Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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