Does company culture really play a role in building awesome products? Do the behaviors we learned in grade school set us up for success in the business world? Alla Weinberg, CEO of Spoke & Wheel, joins the Product Outsiders this episode as they lean into these very questions and more.
Listen in for an intriguing discussion around the importance of psychological safety in the workplace as Alla shares insights from her book A Culture of Safety: Building Environments for People to Think, Collaborate, and Innovate.
[00:00:00] Will Sansbury: Welcome to Product Outsiders, a podcast for unconventional product people.
In a world awash in MBAs and fancy suits, we’re the people standing on the outside, our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some stuff done. Coming from many different backgrounds, we may not be exactly what you picture when you hear the term “product manager,” but we’re passionate about solving problems for real people in ways that create real value, building great collaborative teams, and making incredible products together.
We are the Product Outsiders
Today, we’re joined by Alla Weinberg, CEO of Spoke & Wheel, a team training and culture design company and author of one of my favorite new reads her book, A Culture of Safety: Building Environments for People to Think, Collaborate, and Innovate, which is published by Sense and Respond Press.
So Alla, welcome.
[00:01:07] Alla Weinberg: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:01:08] Will Sansbury: So I’m Will Sansbury. I’m a product management leader for a supply chain company.
[00:01:13] Tammy Bulson: And I’m Tammy Bulson. I’m an Agile practitioner.
[00:01:16] Will Sansbury: For those people who listen to our podcast frequently, Amber can’t be with us today, but Tammy and I are holding down the fort with Alla’s help.
Alla, you and I have known each other for a number of years. I think we both stumbled into that magical early days of Twitter when it was this beautiful, supportive design community. I don’t think it’s that very often anymore, unfortunately.
[00:01:35] Alla Weinberg: Early design Twitter!
[00:01:37] Will Sansbury: I’d love to hear, just share with our listeners, kind of where you come from. What’s your journey?
[00:01:42] Alla Weinberg: My journey has been a bit of a twisty one. I think that’s everyone’s life journey. I started out in academia because honestly, I was scared to go into the workforce. I think early on, I was aware and had a feeling that many, especially the corporate culture wasn’t safe in some ways. I didn’t have the words there, but I felt always trepidatious to even get out into the work world.
So I stayed in academia for as long as I could, but eventually I had graduated, and I had to go out into the world. And I started out in the early days as a designer and a UX designer—back then it was called information architect—and, I have worked for 15 years in product design and service design, and working with product managers building great products. Over the course of that time, I also got interested in coaching and learning how to really help people grow, through the experience I had with a coach myself, and got training and started and have spent close to a decade now, coaching design leaders and product leaders on how to lead creative teams and create environments where people can experiment and collaborate and really do great work together.
My 15 years of experience in tech, as a woman in tech, especially very much early days, wasn’t always the best experience and kind of culminating in one very bad experience towards the end, which led me to, you know, the writing of the book itself.
I was like, oh, I really just want to create and to see a really different way of working in the role. This was pre pandemic, and then some of this has gotten accelerated because of the pandemic, but that’s my mission. It’s to create a much more, I will even say loving, work environment for people to be in together.
[00:03:42] Will Sansbury: That’s awesome. And I love that. I think there’s —and I know Tammy will agree— the softer side of things that often get shoved out as if there’s no place for any sort of human emotion in the business world. I think we’re all better when we’re authentic. That’s fantastic.
So after reading your book, I had one big question that kind of stuck with me.
And I have to say your book is fantastic. It is one of the densest pieces of wisdom in a quick read that I’ve seen in a long time. What struck me about it is as you describe a culture of safety, you’re describing a lot of situations that are unsafe, that I think people have just been taught or groomed to shrug off as normal.
I know I certainly have. Things that we look at and go, “Well, that’s just that’s politics. That’s how the corporate world works.” I guess the question I want to ask is how do you know if you’ve grown numb to it, and how do you become aware of those places where safety is not happening so that you can step in?
[00:04:41] Alla Weinberg: I think that’s a really good question. I think a lot of us, the way that we are raised, and even our educational system, supports the current way that corporate culture—I’m going to say in American Western society—is working, because it is different in other societies.
And it comes from the industrial revolution where there was a concept that got just deeply embedded into the psyche of how the world works, which is that there are people who are thinkers, and then there are people who are doers. And then those are two separate people. And the thinkers are the managers. They’re going to think about the strategy and the business and the numbers.
And then the doers are just going to execute the work. And it just got deeply embedded into the DNA of how we work in the corporate world. And even though we’re no longer physically making widgets on an assembly line, even still even a knowledge work where doing the work requires thinking, I still work with leaders and coach leaders, where as you go up the chain in the corporate world, you have to have more strategy. You set more vision. You’re doing more of the thinking. And then the ICs (Individual Contributors) are doing, are the doers. They’re the hands doing the work. And so that set— like it’s actually like a class separation of roles—is, uh, over the last hundred years has been so embedded into our work. We don’t question it, and we don’t even see it, because it’s just the water that we’re swimming in. We’re like fish, and that’s the water that we’re swimming in.
But what that creates—that kind of class system creates—is that there are people, the thinkers, the managers, the leaders, that are in some way better than the people that are executing. They are smarter. They know something more. And this is all oftentimes why people won’t share or speak up or share good ideas with leadership: because there’s this kind of class dynamic going on there. It really diminishes psychological safety.
Number one, I’m just supposed to do what I’m told. Right? And there’s a power dynamic that gets created in this class system. Well, I have managers, and they have control over whether I have a job or not. Right? And I don’t want to make my manager look bad in front of their manager if I questioned something, for example.
And so just understanding that that actually has a historical context. And it’s, it just got embedded into the DNA of how companies work is an important—for me was honestly an important realization. I was writing, and I was like, “Aha!” You know, like, and there’s a set of beliefs that go with this class system, and we just need to examine those instead of again, taking them for granted. And the beliefs are that, you know, people are lazy, and so they need to be told what to do, and they need to be coming into the office so we can see that they’re working, right?
Like there’s this big fight about hybrid workplace now. Like all the executives are like, “Oh no, we want you to come back to work!” But a lot of that is so we can see you’re working because our outdated assumption is that people are lazy, or that people are only in it for the money.
We’ll set up a competition so you get the bonus if you hit this metric or get this much sales or et cetera. But that creates a competition between you and your coworkers now, and then you don’t have trust with your coworkers. And it actually incentivizes some bad behaviors for people, right?
And so there’s a, like a host of beliefs that people have about this, that, I mean, for example, even. I’m going to take a pause cause I got so excited talking about this.
Well, one of the biggest examples that I see how this shows up in the corporate world is, uh, budgets aren’t given to ICs to look at. Uh, salaries aren’t transparent. When it comes to money, the people that are supposed to be the doers, the executors, shouldn’t — there’s this belief— shouldn’t be involved in this. They don’t have enough experience, intelligence, authority to do this, to, to actually work with this, where could actually be helpful
[00:09:12] Will Sansbury: Even more than that, it seems that there’s this pervasive thought that giving them that information is somehow destructive.
[00:09:17] Alla Weinberg: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Um, so, so now it’s going to cause discord amongst the ICs in some way of, uh, certain people have some kind of budget and others don’t, or certain people have certain information and others don’t. And all of that basically dehumanizes—this is the big thing — dehumanizes the individual contributors that are doing the actual work, and makes it seem like the work that they’re doing is less important than the thinking work that the higher ups are doing. Even though in my perspective, it’s more important because especially in product management, that’s where you’re closest to your customers and the market and the information that is actually useful and helpful in making decisions about the product.
[00:10:03] Will Sansbury: I think you’ve given me some powerful new language to talk about one of the most common dynamics I see in product management org design, and that’s whether or not you separate strategic and tactical activities like you described. I’ve always been an advocate of product manager has to apply both altitudes and two minutes zoom out all the time. And I’ve never liked the sorts of designs where you take product manager, pair them with a agile product owner or the business analyst, and product manager talks to customers; the other person talks to the team. So I really appreciate giving me a different lens to parse that through.
[00:10:38] Tammy Bulson: So we’ve talked a lot about, um, what it looks like when things aren’t working. What does it look like when there is a culture of safety present?
[00:10:47] Alla Weinberg: I think this is unique to the group of people in each company, but generally what that looks like is people at all levels are involved in making decisions and strategic thinking. There isn’t just the leader that makes the decision. People in— if you, you know, get together for a staff meeting, there’s like really good, healthy debate that happens. Ninety percent of the time I go into a company that I’m working with, and I just observe their staff meeting and the leaders, the only one talking for an hour and nobody else is. And then they’re like, the leader’s like, “Oh, what do you think?” People are like, “Yeah, it’s good, it’s fine.”
You know, like, and that’s it, you know, there’s a silence. It’s just like pulling teeth. It’s also what I, what is very, very important, especially to create belonging at work, to really rehumanize work, is that people are sharing how they’re feeling— because we are human beings at the end of the day. We’re not resources. We’re human beings at the end of the day.
And throughout our day, throughout our weeks, we’re constantly getting our feelings hurt, whether we admit it or not. We’re constantly having an emotional reaction to something: what somebody said, a decision that was made. In a healthy culture, we actually have conversations about that, and emotions aren’t perceived as unprofessional but rather the opposite. And we’re going to invest in having a really healthy, honest relationships with each other so that we can get the work done better together at the end.
[00:12:21] Will Sansbury: You bring that up—and I think there’s an important issue of equity that we’ve got to address when we talk about emotions in the workplace, because I’ve seen so many different places where people like me—white guys—can yell and scream and rant and rave, but as soon as somebody who’s not a white guy expresses anything other than baseline, like almost drugged, nothingness, it’s perceived as aggressive or unprofessional. That’s one of the things I think is so powerful with what you’ve got here with this culture of safety is it’s creating spaces where everybody can be fully themselves in a way that—I’ve definitely have worked at companies that aspire for it, but I’ve not yet seen one that actually gets it. And I’m curious in your work coaching companies, have you seen anybody that it really has become DNA level?
[00:13:12] Alla Weinberg: I haven’t yet, but I think that’s why I have a job.
[00:13:17] Will Sansbury: Well, the most noble pursuits are the ones that chase the horizon.
[00:13:20] Alla Weinberg: But I do, I do want to commend— I have been working with some teams that are genuinely trying.
And something that I think is really important that I want to communicate is that these are learnable skills. We were never taught these skills in school, because, again, school has the same class system: the teachers in charge, they know all the answers, they’re going to quiz you, you need to get it right. You know, you get the good grade. And so they’re the ones that are thinking, and you’re the ones that are executing. Same system in school. I mean, I’m just saying, I’m talking about like a traditional public school system to break that paradigm that we’ve grown up with, that we’ve been taught, indoctrinated with.
It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of investment to do it. And so, I don’t think there’s ever a point that you can get to “We got it. We got it right. We’re perfect. We have a culture of safety. Check! We’re done.” Like, I don’t think you can actually ever get to that state.
The work is to continue to work on it, to continue to create and to put effort, thought, attention to it.
And you may be reach a certain level of safety. And you’re like, “Okay, as a group, as a company, we’re ready for the next level. Like, we’re going to go deeper here. And there is always a next level there.
[00:14:39] Tammy Bulson: It’s interesting that you bring up that we were taught this way in schools. It makes me wonder the connection between the teachers that are, what I feel is the most successful, are the ones that ask the students, “What do you think?” without giving them their point of view?
[00:14:55] Alla Weinberg: Yeah. And they’re kind of coaching the students now. It’s like, let me help you get to your answer rather than the me telling you the answer.
[00:15:03] Will Sansbury: I’m having flashbacks to being an elementary school student who had to memorize math facts and spit them out. And anybody who knows me personally, or has ever worked with me, knows I do words well—don’t give me numbers. It still terrorizes me. So it’s interesting to see how this notion of a culture of safety, it really is much bigger than the workplace. It’s about transforming every place people gather.
[00:15:27] Alla Weinberg: Yeah, the key here that I just realized, as you said that—and this is true in school as well—the whole grading system, this comes from the industrial revolution. There’s a carrot or stick model. Like you either get punished—there’s a punitive, some kind of punitive side effect to it—or you get rewarded in some way. And that is still used to try to control people’s behavior at—adults, like adult behavior´— at work, right?
“Oh, you didn’t hit those numbers. You’re not going to get that promotion this quarter.” Or, ” Yeah, you did had those numbers. It doesn’t matter that you kind of stepped over all your colleagues to do it. We’re going to give you that bonus at, you know, at the end of the year or whatever. That is in play the whole time.
And that’s a very transactional way to relate to people. How corporate works right now is it’s very transactional. It’s like, I tell you what to do, you do it. You know, you hit the number, I give you the thing. You don’t hit the number, you get this punishment, right? Like it’s not relating to people. It’s not actually caring about each other or wondering “@hat’s going on with this individual that they might be struggling right now and unable to hit those numbers at this point? What’s going on in their life?” Right. As a human being, not just somebody who’s there, that are hands, that are executing, that can be replaced like a cog in a machine.
[00:16:51] Will Sansbury: Such an important question at this particular moment in time, too, as you know, I hope we’re at the, what I hope is the tail end, of a global pandemic, but the last couple of years have just been hard for everyone. There’s a lot of grief that has occurred that’s not been dealt with because life marched on. And it does show up in the workplace.
But one of the questions I’ve got for you is a lot of what you’re talking about here. I’m a fairly left-leaning, in touch with my feelings guy. A lot of what you’re saying here resonates with me right out of the gate. So I’m curious if there’s ways that you can actually quantify the business impact of having an unsafe culture.
[00:17:27] Alla Weinberg: So, this is what the data shows. If you’re in the mobilized or immobilized state, what happens is— and this happens unconsciously there’s, this is not a choice, this happens by our autonomic nervous system, so the part of our nervous system that’s in charge of all the things we don’t do consciously like digestion, blood pressure, breathing, rate controls, all of those kinds of things— it will take resources, meaning blood and oxygen, away from our brain, and it will distribute it to our body so that in preparation for either to run or to fight and to actually save ourselves. When that happens, our operating IQ, meaning the IQ that we have available to us in that moment, drops by half. By half!
So normally if we’re in a safe and connected state, our IQ is about between a hundred and 120 points. When our nervous system gets activated, it’s between 50 and 70. And I’m not sure if either of you have ever had this experience, but you know, you’re in a meeting and, uh, or you’re just working and you get an email from somebody like a stakeholder who’s angry. There are some things they’re not happy about something, right?
Your vision actually narrows, like I’ve actually seen, and for myself, I’ve experienced this, where it feels darker on my peripheral vision. Like I’m almost like wearing like sunglasses or something. My vision narrows. I start to, at my heart, my heart starts to race. I start to hold my breath.
And in that moment, that’s my body’s response saying, “Danger! You need to run or you need to fight!” But my ability to even respond to that message well is not there in that moment. And it takes about 20 minutes to step away and takes like 20 minutes to be able to calm our nervous system enough that we can get those resources back and actually be able to think well.
And every day we as human beings, especially at work, are going, like, our nervous system is going through different cycles. Sometimes it feels calm. Sometimes it feels activated sometimes it’s numb. And so if that is very frequent or chronic, because there isn’t an environment where my nervous system feels like it can relax, how am I going to be creative? How am I going to come up with ideas or even solutions for regular problems?
It’s actually hard to, or even impossible, to think. So, even if you don’t want the touchy feely stuff, you probably want to be able to think, or your team to be able to think, so that they can do their jobs minimally.
[00:20:08] Will Sansbury: Last question I’ve got for you is a little bit of a vulnerable one. You know, as I’m reading through your book, there’s a couple places where you’ve got some anti-patterns that I can immediately flash back to moments in my life as a leader where I’ve been the person executing that negative behavior.
So one of the things I’ve loved about your book is it’s got very concrete exercises for people to take themselves through, to start to process this and understand it. But I wanted to ask a little bit about the role of shame and that whole process. And how do you coach people who are feeling paralyzed by who they have been and unable to become who they should be?
[00:20:46] Alla Weinberg: There’s a skill, which again, I know no one teaches us in school, which is how to feel your feelings to completion. And people often, we have labels for our feelings. Oh, I’m feeling sad. I’m feeling angry. I’m feeling happy. We have these labels for our feelings, but they’re not the feelings themselves. Our feelings are physiological, meaning they’re sensations in our body.
So it’s a tightness in my stomach often. And when I feel anxious, I’ll get a tightness in my stomach. When I feel sad, I feel heaviness in my chest. If I feel angry, I often get heat in my arms and in my face, like I feel hot. And so for somebody who’s feeling shame, which is a very challenging emotion, and most of us spend our lives doing anything to avoid feeling it, is to actually sit with what does shame feel like in your body.
And I’ve, you know, I’ve definitely felt shame in my body. My body feels shaky when I feel shame. That’s how I feel like, kind of scared, kind of shaky is, is that feeling for me. And so it’s the most uncomfortable thing as human beings that we can do—it’s kind of almost a meditation—is to, is to sit in it,and not to try to change it, and not to try to make up a story of why do I feel this way or, oh, look, I’m a horrible person, and I deserve to feel this way, not to make any story about it, but just to put as much of your attention on the sensation that you’re feeling in your body as possible and sit in the gross discomfort sludge of it.
And this beautiful thing happens. It gets unstuck. And it releases, and it’s no longer circulating in your body. And you just feel relief, and you feel lighter after that. And just to keep doing it. It’s like, it’s like, I think over our lifetimes, we sort of build up a mountain of feelings we never really felt or given ourselves permission to feel. So you kind of just have to like chip away at it almost as a ritual. That’s what I’ve done for many years as a ritual. Just like I’m going to sit down. I’m going to feel what’s going on in my body right now.
And this may be harder for some folks because some folks are very heady. They’re like, oh, I just want to think about it. I want to think about what I’m feeling in my body. And what I’m saying is you don’t need to think about it; you just need to feel it. You need to get in there.
And this is one of the biggest things, especially in remote work is that we forget that the rest of our body exists. It’s just like, oh, we’re just these floating heads that move from meeting to meeting, and that’s it. And, especially with knowledge work, right? Like everything is in our head, but there’s all this information and all this activity and all this resources that are actually happening in our body that we have to pay attention to, because at the end of the day, we are, we are like biological creatures.
When we do, we’re actually able to function at a much higher level than if we don’t.
[00:23:55] Will Sansbury: That’s fantastic, Alla. Thank you. Thank you for coming and sharing with us. It’s been really great to just talk about how important it is to tend to the culture, to tend to the space around you, the space where you do the work for the human beings.
Like you said, all of us, our head and heart. We need to acknowledge all of it. So really appreciate it. Again, Alla’s book is A Culture of Saftey: Building an Environment for People to Think, Experiment, and Innovate, and it’s available at senseandrespond.com. You can also learn more about Alla’s company, Spoke and Wheel, and her work helping teams to grow in this space and to grow in their understanding and awareness of a healthy, safe culture.
You can learn more about that at spokandwheel.co. Thank you again for spending some time with us. We’re grateful to have all of our listeners checking in with us as we explore this space of product management and building great products for people. We invite you to please subscribe, if you haven’t already, and you can find us on any of the major podcast providers.
Thanks everyone. Stay gold, Outsiders.
[00:24:53] Tammy Bulson: Stay gold. .