True Leadership Means Prioritizing Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Sigalle Barness | August 17, 2022

On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Allison West, Attorney, Investigator, Speaker, Trainer, and Expert at Employment Practices Specialists. Allison discusses how she dedicates her work towards creating psychologically safe workplaces by investigation, coaching, and training executive leadership. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.


On a Moment of Gratitude for the Day

Admiring the Progress of Her Garden


Favorite moment [today] was being able to look outside and see my garden. Which has already started blooming here, which is really nice. So all different flowers. I haven't gotten into the vegetable piece. I have a lot of orange and my white flowers are blooming, which they resisted for the last year. And then all of a sudden in December, they started kicking in and now they're in full bloom. I do have a lemon tree and I've been waiting for years. It takes about seven years, but I have about seven potential lemons that are several inches big and I'm like every day I'm talking to them. So that's my goal. 


On Her Lawyer Origin Story

Temp to Paralegal to Becoming a Lawyer at 36


So I went to school at the University of Colorado Boulder, and then two days later I had an apartment in San Francisco and I was a communications major. Never really knew what I wanted to do and sort of floundered and did temp work. I was interested in radio, TV, and film because that was my degree and I couldn't get a job. Wound up doing some work in the consulting field. More entry level research assistant, not really for me. And then I wound up doing more temp work and I worked at a law firm for a solo attorney as a secretary. And I have an outgoing personality, my typing skills, not so refined, right. So fast. But the clients liked me. 

Then I left after a year and I went to a small law firm that had 10 attorneys. I was there for about two days and one of the lawyers said to me, look, you seem to have a brain. We're going to trial. Would you like to help us? And I literally looked at my watch and I said, I got nothing else to do. So he taught me how to be paralegal and I worked with expert witnesses. And I was also older, I was in my late twenties at this point. So he took me under his wing. And then after a year I left that firm and I went to a bigger firm to be a paralegal, and then after went to an even bigger firm. And the original guy said, you should go to law school. You should go to law school. And I'm like, do you know me? I kind of partied my way through undergrad.

And he's like, I believe in you. And I applied. I got accepted. And in that fall of '90, I worked full time and went to law school at night for four years and I would run to class. We had class four nights a week for the first two years. It was quite the ride. That was when I was 32. So I didn't become a lawyer till I was 36. 10 years older really than many of the first year associates that I was in class with.


On Advice to Others Who Feel They Are Behind on the Timeline

No One Should Get to Define Your Own Journey for You


I have given that advice to HR professionals, you know, cause I'm an employment lawyer. So HR professionals who I meet, who see me speak at conferences, will write to me privately and say, Hey, like I love what you do. But I'm not sure. I'm too old. I have a family. And so I will mentor them. They'll be in their thirties, forties, fifties, going to law school. So I always like to think of myself as the poster child of having the route that was circuitous. It went up and down and all around. 

And I tell people that you can bring so much by the journey that you have been on in your life. And I think of someone, she had three kids, we kept in touch for a long time. She finally went to law school at night, struggled to pass the bar, California, New York. The toughest in the country. And she just kept hanging in there. And she's been practicing now for a couple years and it's like such a joy. But I always tell them, you get where you get when you get there. 

I tell this to young people too, you're 18, you're 19, you don't have to know what you wanna be. And I've had a lot of different times of my life where I'm like, I wanna be X. I wanna be Y. My parents, when I told them I was going to law school, I have the most loving, caring parents. They were both on the phone and they laughed. They were like, oh, that's funny. I'm like, no, no, no, really. They're like, well power to you. You're paying for this one. 

I won the AmJur in writing and research my first semester. I was like, oh my gosh. Maybe I can do this. So I share with people, don't be afraid of the journey because it's yours. And you get to define it. I became a mother at 45. I adopted my son from Belarus. I bought my first house at 48. I'm a late bloomer. But look where I am today. So I love my journey. Just like you love yours. Right? You can embrace where we've been, but it's mine. And no one gets to define my journey for me.


On the Importance of Mentoring

It Is A Gift We Both Give And Receive


Mentoring is important because it is a gift we both receive from those who mentor us. And it's a gift we can give to others. When you talk about being grateful, right? I get to share with people and maybe they will be able to see something different in their own life. 

Don't forget the thing about being a mentor, and people don't really think about this, is I learn from every mentee. So this is not a unilateral relationship. I learn from the way people have their journey. So there's a little bit of selfishness in it and being a mentor cause it's like Wow, I would've never thought of that. That was great. So just gifts. 


On the Work She Does Today

Investigations, Harassment Prevention Training, and Executive Coaching


What I do currently is I spend a lot of time doing harassment prevention training, which is really a passion of mine. I'm preparing today to deliver leadership training tomorrow, focused on communication skills. Next week I'll talk about how to be a good coach. Which is really something lacking in the legal field. It breaks my heart. It's such a great opportunity to grow people as a leader and a manager. And then I'm also an investigator. So I investigate harassment discrimination. I tend to come in at the higher levels. So right now I'm doing a CEO investigation, which is very intense. I also do a lot of public speaking on employment law. 

And I am a coach, which is really one of my favorite things. I coach executives who misbehave and if anyone in your audience thinks that people have been behaving during the pandemic, they will be incredibly surprised because I've had 14 new clients just this year alone. Like CEOs, Chief Marketing Officers, people who go to the new sales kickoff meetings that are happening now, and they're drinking too much. They're hitting on people. I have one guy who, somebody was wearing a t-shirt that said "badass developer", and he just took his fingers and he pressed her breast on those words on her chest. It's like, uh, like what were you thinking? So I spend a lot of time coaching and doing regular kinds of executive coaching, leadership coaching too. And I love it. That's my passion. 


On the Difference Between Training and Speaking

Training is More Tailored and Personal than Speaking


Yeah, it can be semantics to some, but when I'm a speaker, I'm delivering a message to an audience and it's not as tailored. I happen to be known around the country for a program called "Seven Steps for Creating Bulletproof Documentation." I mean, one of the more boring areas of employment law, how to properly document. But you try to give tips and you try to help educate. 

Training is a much more drilled down way of messaging and you're able to call on the audience. It's very hard when I'm speaking in front of a thousand people, I can't call on people. I can't get that personal kind of connection as much. So training is much more drilled down, example based, related to the company. I've already spent a couple of hours talking to my client, tell me some of the nuances, right. And so as a speaker, I can challenge an audience in general, but I don't get to hear their answers. Training is very personal. 


On One of the Biggest Things Law Firms and Legal Institutions Need

Spending More Time Doing Practical, Effective Training


So California just has a new law or part of our new rules of professional conduct, which is if you are at a law firm and you have harassed one of your clients or within the firm, like now it has to be reported. I mean, it's a whole new game, right? So I just wrote to one of my clients yesterday. Why? Because I had coached one of their partners who had harassed a vendor. Had made other inappropriate comments. Had that happened today. A whole different thing for this partner, a whole different outcome. Reporting, probably investigating, etcetera. So very interesting. 

So for law firms just spending more time doing effective training, it has to be more practical. I was lucky to be at firms that did spend the time to drill down and give us some more practical training on what to do.


On The Biggest Mistake Executive Level Leadership Can Make

They Don’t Promote Psychological Safety


Oh, they don't create psychological safety within their organizations. And that is classic at law firms. Harvard professor Emmy Edmondson, I always like to give her a call out as the researcher behind this. And what it really means is that you create a safe environment where people can make mistakes. You're the partner on a case, and I could say, you know what, Sigalle, I've researched. And I'm confused how to approach this motion for summary judgment. I know what the issues are, but the cases are so close or whatever. But meaning, can I ask you without you judging me going, "you're a fifth year. What the hell are you asking me for? How do you not know this already?" and that this would jeopardize my chance of partnership or trust. That psychological safety is really key and we don't spend time in many organizations to check in. It's built on empathy. It's built on vulnerability. What builds trust.

And so in most law firms, they don't build a trusting relationship. So that psychological safety isn't there for someone to say, you know what, I wanna be on a partner track, but right now, due to family obligations, I really need to do three quarter time. Which we all know means full time. Look how women have historically been penalized for that type of self care and how men are looked at "oh, you're staying home to take care of your kids. Like, what is wrong with you?" I think it's changed. I think it's gotten better, but certainly not safe enough. So that psychological safety starts at the top. 


On How to Start Creating Psychological Safety for Others

Focus on Belonging


So part of it is the messaging. To talk about culture, to say, look, we're focused on, you know, diversity and equity but the most important piece is belonging. That people feel that they can belong. And we want people to feel that they can come to us and share what their journey is or what they need on their journey. So it's the messaging. It's having meetings and it's living up to the values of the organization. And you know what? There are firms who live up to it. Look at the ones that are rated top places to work, firms that really look at how to be innovative, create good psychological safety. And good mental health for their lawyers. Not like it can't be done. 


On the Two Sides to Her Work

Investigative v. Training


My work is all neutral. So meaning yes. I'm hired by employers to do their training. I'm hired by employers to do investigations, but I am independent in that. So as an investigator, the client tells me what the facts are. I sometimes need guidance like who are the key players? Who do you think may have more information? But I run the investigation as to who I talk to, when I talk to them, what I need. But for training, I work with the client and I do manager training up to the C-suite or the partner level. So it's just going with what their issues are. But I'm neutral. 

So I'm always retained by the client, just cause I have to create an attorney-client relationship, but usually it's the company lawyer that will reach out to me. So I typically will do harassment discrimination. Retaliation kinds of claims, other kinds of misconduct. Bullying. I've done some finance, it's not my expertise, but meaning I can look through time sheets. I can look through expense reports and then, maybe if there's a computer issue, we'll bring in a forensic expert. So sometimes it's a multifaceted type of investigation. It could be at a very high level, like the CEO investigation that I'm working on right now. When it's a CEO, like I report to the special committee of the board.

I investigate and I follow the facts. And at the end I make a finding. Sometimes it's just doing the fact finding and the company will make a finding. But at the end of the day, I have to decide whether it is more likely than not that the conduct either occurred or didn't occur. Preponderance of the evidence is my guiding star. So that's what I do. I don't make recommendations. I used to, early on, but it can have a bias effect that now I'm really trying to help them. So I don't make recommendations. I give my findings, they may have me write a report and then I go off into the sunset and they are left to do whatever they do.

I don't know what happens. I'm curious, sometimes I'll be honest with you. I'm like, oh, I wonder if they fired that person cause I found they did terrible things. But unless I run into the lawyer or something like, I don't know what happens. 


On Dealing with Cases that Drastically Impact a Person’s Life and Career

If You Don't Have A Little Heartburn When You're Making Your Findings, You're Not Doing It Correctly


I always say the reality is if you don't have a little heartburn when you're making your findings, like you're not doing it correctly. Because people get fired. These can be very public cases. If I'm working on a matter and someone in the C-suite gets terminated, it could impact if it's a public company. There's a variety of things that happen and so I have to be very precise and pretty confident that I've put together a puzzle that I can really see as much of what the picture is as possible. 

So it is a weight on the shoulders. I feel tremendous weight on my shoulders. Am I making sure to talk to everybody? Am I asking the right questions, which I do for every investigation, but there's a weight to it. And I have investigator colleagues that I trust. We are under the umbrella of our privileges and we do the pinky promise and it's like, can I run this by you? And I had to do that last week with a colleague. I said, I'm just stumped as to how I wanna proceed. And I just need to hear myself say it to someone who knows what I'm going through. And it was very helpful. It's hard to do it in isolation. 


On Advice to Firms and Organizations Who Want to Tackle Toxicity

Identify Your Company’s Bully, Then Decide Whether They’re Worth Coaching


Well, two different things. So like I investigate the toxic stuff. And I've been coaching bullies for over 20 years. But when I get called to coach the bully, one of the things that I always say is, is the person worth saving? And sometimes they're like, oh, huh, good question, click. Right? Look, I like coaching people that the company believes in and here's the thing about bullies. And this is often true in the legal field, is they tend to be really good at what they do. Which is why they haven't been fired so far. 

But I always say, look, when you have a toxic workplace and you're willing and ready to address it, then we can talk. But if you're just like, well, we don't wanna hurt their feelings. We don't - I mean, I remember early on in my coaching career being called into a national law firm to coach a partner and they're like, look, we don't wanna hurt her feelings. We don't really wanna tell her what the complaints have been. I'm like, how will she fix anything? And when I met with her, she was very tough and she just said, I will give you one hour of my time. And I kind of got it because she didn't have any background info. And I told these partners, and they were all men, like you cannot help anyone if you don't give them the info. And sometimes they want me to do it, which I think is the chicken way out to be quite candid. I had a law firm, beloved law firm, client of mine. I've been doing their work for 17 years. They wanted me to talk to one of their partners cause she whined too much. She was a whiner. And it was coming through in interviews. So people would hear her in the interview. Oh, I work every weekend and, oh, it's this. So they were having trouble hiring associates. And I said, you would save a lot of money if you just told her yourself. No, no, we can't. No like it'll hurt the relationship.

So of course I didn't and she was very upset. Why didn't they tell me. I said, I think because you don't make it safe for them to give you feedback, right? So I have to be able to be very candid and direct with people. And so what I tell them when they ask about the toxic I'm like, are you truly prepared to address the issue? And that means coaching. That means accountability. That means the crappy behavior stops now. And all your other partners have to be willing to gently professionally call it out when it happens. And unless you're willing to do that. Like, you know, I'm happy to take people's money. I mean, I work for a living. I love making money, but I'm like just fire the person then if you're not willing to put in the time. Oh no, they're valuable. Okay. If they're valuable, then let's give them the feedback. And I'm the mirror, right? As the coach, I'm the mirror. And my job is to help people see how others see them. And it is not easy and they will fight me until they go, are you telling me people are afraid to work with me? And I'm like, hallelujah, like, yeah, it's what I've been saying for two hours. And these are the reasons why, but I can help you. 


On the Importance of Executives Dealing Directly with Toxicity

Leaders Should Not Shy Away From Difficult and Direct Conversations 


Actually I just really push them to do it. And I said, let me guide you, let me help you. Let me tell you how to do it. Let me coach you how to give that feedback. And let me tell you why it's so important for them to hear it from you because you have more power than I do. And it's hard. There's times where I will still give pieces of information, but I really push them and it's all about accountability. And it is about being candid. I wanna just give you a very funny, quick example. Someone who's in, not in the legal field, but a partnership structure. So like very equatable. And so this guy, they did an investigation and these are just three of the words that the investigator found. And I don't have to say more because everyone in your audience will already know this person. Belittling, demeaning, condescending, right? Like we've all met. So when I coach them similar to how you often start, just tell me your journey.

I say, tell me why you think you're here. Because I wanna make sure it's aligned with cause sometimes they're like, I'm not really sure. So he tells me why he thinks he's there. And he said, look, I just wanna let you know that compassion is a core value of mine. Now had I been drinking, I literally would've spit it out into the camera. And I looked at him and I said, no, no, actually, no, that's, that's not true. Because I know you got the same document that I read, right? That belittling, demeaning, condescending. I said, here's the thing. Let me help you align how you see yourself with how others see you. Notice I said it very softly, right? I use my voice. I use every part of who I am as a coach. And this is what they, in 99% of the time, they're like, oh, Okay. You can help me because how you see yourself is not aligned with how everybody else sees you. Gotta say it. 

And that happens so often in law firms, right? Cause you wanna be the star, the legal brain. You wanna be the one who cracks the code. You wanna be the one who wins the case. So all of that is very inbred into being at a law firm. It's all about success. Nobody wants to be the loser. It's this whole win, lose dichotomy. I just attended a 40 hour mediation and conflict resolution training, which is not the caucusing back and forth it's always having the parties in the room. And that's something that can be so helpful at law firms. Let's talk about it in the room. 


On What Leadership in Law Means

It’s Nurturing People at All Levels with Vulnerability and Empathy


It's building that psychologically safe environment where you can nurture people at all levels. An environment where vulnerability and empathy are core values within the organization. So that to me is leadership. 


On the One thing She Would Improve about the Legal Industry

Be More Self Reflective and “Up the Curiosity”


I think it would be to be more self reflective and be curious why people are leaving. Be curious why people are staying. Be curious, what they need. So up the curiosity. 


On Practical Advice for Leaders in Law

Be Open to Opportunities and Possibilities 


I think the best advice I can give people is to be open to opportunity. I knew my strength in training and I found a way to be able to create that in the field of employment law and have that be my passion. So I get the best of both worlds. 

So being open to possibility is the most important thing that I would give to your listeners, because I think so often we're on a path and we think it's the only path. And if you have some passions out there, see where you can put that into play.

I think so many lawyers I've talked to so many who are like, oh, I wish I had gone into this or that. So take a breather, take a step back and look into that. You know, I get people who have family obligations and things, but then think of other ways. I mean, I try to, of course encourage people to go into employment law. It's like recession proof. It's a great area. But there's so many different ways to practice law, or to use your legal background. 


On What People Misunderstand About Her Work

Although Hired by an Employer, She is Still a Neutral Figure


I think sometimes they think that because I'm hired by the employer, that that's my leaning or something. And I do expert witness work but all of the matters that I've testified in have always been on behalf of the plaintiff. So I really love that burden of proof. Totally dig that. So it's different from having been a defense attorney 20 years ago. So I think they don't understand what neutrality means and that you can actually do it, which is why I get so annoyed seeing law firms who jumped on the investigation bandwagon because they still have defense mentality. And I see it in their investigations. 


On How She Approaches Neutrality in Investigations

Focus on the Fact Finding With No Investment in the Outcome


You have to not have any vested interest in the outcome. When I mentor new attorneys who are now new to investigations and they'll call me and they'll say, oh, I was trying to save the client money. And I said, step away from the table. That is not your job. If they give you a budget, you stay within the budget. If you need to go over, you tell them, this is what I need to. You either approve it or don't approve it. This is the downside if it's not approved. 

So it's just making sure I am true to what my goal is, which is to make a finding. And I'm independent. And in fact, in my current investigation, I had to say to the general counsel, look, I really appreciate when you give me some of your viewpoints, but I need to ask you to stop. I can separate it, but there's been a few comments, I need you to talk to your other lawyers about it. Please don't include me in the conversation. 

I have to put up the guardrails. I have to be very careful cause I'm the one who will be on the witness stand if something goes sideways and I have to be able to say. Nope. I didn't have these kind of conversations or yes we did. And this is why I talked to counsel after every interview. That's what they requested. They are the client. They get to dictate, under the rules of professional conduct, how often I communicate with them.


On Her Self-Care Practice 

Gardening, Walking, Podcasts, and Meditation


My gardening and walking. I live two blocks from the beach. So, I'm very lucky to be able to walk and we've got hills and bluffs and I get to go outside and I talk to other people. And I listen to a lot of podcasts on things that have nothing to do with what I do. A lot on leadership. 

You know, I just I take care of myself. I plan vacations. So when I went to that mediation training, they talked about meditating for mediators and how important it is for balance. So I'm gonna incorporate more meditation as well. 


On How She Keeps Growing Professionally

Curiosity, Reading, and Listening to Others


I remain curious. That's the best thing. And I, like I said, I listen to podcasts. I'm active in my field, as a speaker and attending and reading. And just that curiosity is what keeps me going. Like, how would I do that? Or that's interesting. Or you listen to other people and you're like, holy crapola. Like I would never know how to do that. And then all of a sudden, I think, well, maybe I could? It's that curiosity? I'm older, closer to the end of my career than I am at the beginning of my career. And you look for ways to give back. And that keeps it exciting, the mentoring and doing those kind of things. So that's all part of how I can bring my whole self to what I do. 

I'm an active member in the association of workplace investigators, a plug for us. I'm one of the original 50 members. I spoken at more than half of their conferences. So I stay up on this all the time and that's what it takes. 

I love what I do.  It's about making better workplaces for everyone and that's really the goal at the end of the day. Safe, respectful workplaces. 


Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.


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