Jewish Organizational Culture Part 2: Creating the Not-too-nice Organizational Culture

by David Bernstein

In one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise gets a temporary, substitute captain named Jellico, who displays none of the inclusive leadership characteristics of our leader-hero, Captain Picard. Captain Jellico even relieves the highly competent first officer, Will Riker, of duty for daring to question his orders. The episode’s writers must have been tempted to have Jellico’s mission end in defeat in order to make the point that dictatorial leadership styles produce inferior results, but instead the mission succeeds and deters the enemy, just as the brilliant but authoritarian Jellico had planned.

We are all familiar with examples of mean but brilliant leaders who preside over nasty organizational cultures that produce excellent results. They are expert micromanagers, telling everyone what to do and how to do it. They don’t ask for or accept feedback and publicly berate those who make “stupid” suggestions or fail to carry out a task in what they consider an effective or timely fashion. They believe there’s only one way to do something – their way. They tend to scream and humiliate. But they are so smart, innovative, detail-oriented and hard-working that they can, in the end, dictate their organizations to amazing results.

Then there’s the polar opposite – the nice organizational culture. The nice organization is a warm and friendly environment led by a congenial leader. It stresses civility and respect at all times. People in nice organizational cultures validate each other. When someone reports on a recent initiative at the staff meeting, everyone says “great job,” even though some secretly feel it could have been much better and a few others wonder if it was a good expenditure of resources in the first place. Nice organizational cultures avoid conflict and don’t argue, because arguing can lead to hurt feelings, which no one wants.

In the nice organization, when someone is not performing, no one calls them out on it. The nice organization almost never fires anyone unless they’re absolutely up against a wall because that’s, well, not nice. The nice organizational culture does not retain really top talent for long because talented people want to make a difference and can’t stand it when others don’t pull their weight. Nice organizations fail to give adequate consideration as to how to best use their resources because they’re afraid of the pain an honest reckoning might cause. Therefore, nice organizations tend to become mediocre – or worse – over time.

I hate to say it, but the mean organizational culture is usually more effective than the nice organizational culture. But the mean organization has some serious downsides as well.

In the mean organization, there’s only one leader – one decision maker – so when he or she leaves, it’s all downhill. Very few people have the sheer stamina and ability of the mean leader to micromanage that many people, so there’s no easy replacement for the leader. In the mean organization, only the leader is permitted to take risks and fail. So after the leader leaves, the people who are left tend to be highly risk-averse, which prevents the organization from innovating. The mean organizational culture is not enduring.

Whatever possible merits the mean organizational culture might have, demeaning, stifling and otherwise mistreating people fly in the face of Jewish values and, hence, should not be tolerated at Jewish organizations, or anywhere else for that matter. I suspect more Jewish organizations are nice than mean, and, of course, many contain an incoherent mix of mean and nice, reflecting a lack of intent from the top.

The trick is creating a nice, but not-too-nice organizational culture that treats people with respect, empowers them and knows how to have fun, but at the same time encourages constructive conflict, tough choices and risk taking.

Here are some steps you might consider in creating the nice, but not-too-nice culture:

Give and get real feedback. If you’re nice, you probably sugarcoat your words. You’re depriving people of what they need to know to do their jobs and, moreover, what you need from them to accomplish organizational goals. Start giving straightforward feedback. It gets easier over time. Model the behavior by insisting that people give you straightforward feedback. Ask for it constantly. Publicly ask for feedback on an initiative you were involved with, and reward the person who gives the harshest critique. While harmony and candor are not mutually exclusive – one can be candid in a respectful manner – place a premium on candor over harmony. Make it clear to people that they’ve got to get over the tendency to get offended when someone offers candid feedback.

Don’t keep underperformers. People give your organization money to produce value in your mission, not to keep staff gainfully employed. You’re neither being a good steward of those dollars nor the organization’s mission by keeping underperformers on the payroll. You cannot create an inspired organizational culture filled with underperformers. Making these hard decisions may seemingly hurt the culture in the short-run but almost certainly helps it in the long-run.

Debate organizational decisions. Foster real debate on important decisions, starting at the senior team level. It’s ok if passions flare. Leaders can actively look for areas of disagreement, and ask people to express different points of view. Debates among staff members bring out and clarify options. Debates give people permission to disagree and make their true opinions known. Even when someone doesn’t get their way in the end, they know they’ve been heard and are much more likely to be loyal to the decision reached.

Reward Risk Taking. The mean organization stifles risk taking by sewing fear of failure; the nice organization stifles risk taking by valuing everyone’s work equally and in many cases being afraid of risks. The nice organization stresses egalitarianism – equal treatment of everyone, no matter how they perform. Why take a risk to make things better if everything is already good enough and you’re rewarded no matter what you do? The best way to create a culture that values risk taking and high performance is to reward people who take risks and fail (there’s a difference between failing and underperforming). Everyone will get the point that the risk itself, not the result, counts most.

Jewish organizations can create nice but effective organizational cultures. Like everything else worth doing, it takes planning and sustained effort.

David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein