by Louis Feldstein
One of the most challenging, if not, the most difficult (and heart wrenching) responsibilities confronting any manager is the task of counseling an employee out of a job or having to fire a person. The task is made that much more complicated when the person being let go is deemed good at the job they were hired to do, but are now considered either not equipped or willing to do the new job based on changes within an organization.
Earlier this week, Maya Bernstein wrote a thought provoking essay that reinforces the message that it is imperative that dissident voices be listened to and brought into the discussion as part of all successful change efforts. She is absolutely correct. Her brilliant use of the Talmudic story of Rabbi Eliezer and the disputed oven (Baba Metzia 59b) reinforces the message.
The Talmud has a concept called d’var acher, which teaches that a single text may have multiple interpretations, albeit each with a far different conclusion.
While Bernstein’s read on the story is insightful there is in fact a d’var acher, an alternative understanding, which is just as poignant, and just as important to successful change efforts. This complementary understanding of the Talmudic story suggests that to help the Jewish tradition survive the traumatic changes it was going through at the time, it was essential to act drastically and remove a person from the group. The same can be true for contemporary companies and organizations.
If we look closely at the Talmudic story, and through a different set of lenses than Bernstein’s, we see an all too common, but regrettable example of inappropriate behavior associated with change efforts. According to the story, the Sages articulated an understanding of what a specific law should be and Rabbi Eliezer disagreed. Rather than just accepting that his view had been rejected (and perhaps offering a counter argument), R. Eliezer immediately went outside the system to express his frustration. In response, his colleagues admonished him and told him, in no uncertain terms, that going outside (similar to going to volunteer leadership and donors) rather than presenting factual arguments to settle the disagreement, wasn’t appropriate. Nevertheless, R. Eliezer continued to exhibit the same behavior over and over again even though he was told it was inappropriate and wouldn’t change the direction of the decision. Imagine trying to run an organization or creating a change process with unhappy staff continually going outside the system to share their frustrations, anger and resentment.
Finally, according to the story, R. Eliezer, having had his same opinion rejected again and again, shared his frustration with the highest authority, the Bat Kol, the Heavenly Voice (e.g., chair of the board or major donor). As is sometimes the case in organizational life, rather than stating, “This is an internal management issue and thus it is not my role to intervene”, the Voice challenged the rabbis . Quite appropriately, the rabbis told the Bat Kol that it was not her role to be involved at this level (torah lo b’shamyim he – “the Torah is not in heaven”). Fortunately, in a delayed example of good leadership, the Bat Kol finally concurred that it was not the place for her involvement.
Whereas in Maya Bernstein’s column she suggests that the other rabbis did not adequately listen to R. Eliezer, the same text can clearly be understood to imply he was given the opportunity to share his views on multiple occasions. The problem was not that he wasn’t given the opportunity to share, but rather that when his views weren’t accepted he acted out inappropriately, improperly, immaturely and exhibited egregious unprofessional behavior.
How many in the nonprofit (as well as the for-profit) world have had to deal with staff, who when they didn’t like a decision, shared their discontent with volunteer leadership, donors or others? Most would agree that such behavior is usually considered beyond the pale of appropriate professional behavior.
This story of improper does not, however, end there. Understanding that R. Eliezer had demonstrated his inability to work effectively for change by trying to undermine his colleagues authority to make the needed changes, the rabbis determined that the only effective path forward was to remove him from the group (i.e., excommunicate him). While harsh, such action is sometimes absolutely essential. What became clear from R. Eliezer’s actions was that he had become a toxic element within the team. Rabbi Eliezer, as brilliant, committed, and talented as he was, had become a negative influence that if allowed to continue, would bring about the ultimate downfall of the group and its efforts. To paraphrase Bernstein and Christiane Montouri … R. Eliezer had become the finger that needed to be sacrificed in order to make room “for new DNA that can survive in the changing reality.”
Similar to situations in contemporary businesses and organizations, the story goes on to describe the potential horrific impact a disgruntled person can have not only on the change efforts, but to the organization and even larger community.
Recognizing R. Eliezer’s frustration and anger, the rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva (one of the most respected and caring of the teachers) to convey to R. Eliezer, in a gentle and soft manner that he was being excommunicated. R. Akiva, dressed in black (to convey the solemnity of the moment) delivered the message, stating, “It seems to me your colleagues are removed from you”. Rather than admonishing R. Eliezer for unprofessional behavior, Akiva brilliantly conveys the message that Eliezer and his colleagues no longer shared the same vision and direction and thus, for the good of all, including R. Eliezer, he should go his own way.
Regrettably, while R. Akiva handled this the right way, R. Eliezer left even angrier and more frustrated (“everyplace on which R. Eliezer set his eyes went into flames”). Ultimately his frustration ascended to such a level that Rabban Gamliel, the leader of all the rabbis was almost killed in an act of revenge. Gamliel’s life was only spared when he convinced the Almighty (read Board chair or major donor) that he didn’t excommunicate Eliezer because of a personal vendetta, or to elevate himself, but rather for the good of the organization and community, so that ”disputes would not proliferate in Israel”.
Maya Bernstein is absolutely correct that it is essential to bring in dissident and different voices as a part of any successful change effort. In those situations in which people act appropriately, their voices should be valued and respected. We must always work with these people to help them through the change or if necessary, help them understand that the organization might no longer be the best place for them. This must always be done with sensitivity and respect.
Nevertheless, and regrettably, it is also imperative to recognize that in some cases there are professionals, and volunteers, who don’t want to change or are incapable of making the necessary changes. In cases, where people act inappropriately and unprofessionally, we have to be clear that there are lines that need to be adhered to, and boundaries that must respected with change processes. If these professionals (and sometimes volunteers) cannot behave or act appropriately, then for the change to be successful, actions must be taken to remove these people from the system.
Interestingly, there are some organizations and companies that reward such inappropriate behavior. Whether intended or not, these organizations ultimately undermine their change efforts. In the end, inevitably, they find themselves failing at change and sliding back into continued irrelevancy and dysfunction. Juxtaposed are those companies and organizations that recognize that successful change sometimes comes at a cost – and that cost may mean saying goodbye to people who were once valuable organizational assets but no longer fit. Letting someone go is never easy, but for change to be successful, it is sometimes necessary. That is how organizations and companies thrive and grow.
Louis Feldstein is the Founder and CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions, LLC a change management consulting practice focused on nonprofit and faith based organizations, academic institutions and mission driven businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.