April 24, 2020

Parshat Shavua – Tazria-Metzora

Parshat Tazria-Metzora focuses on several different types of personal impurity and the actions that must be taken to rectify the situation and bring the person in question back to a state of ritual purity. Interestingly, the main impurity discussed is a result of how an individual uses his voice. Tzara’at (leprosy) was a punishment for lashon hara (evil speech) and the condition (metzora – the word for someone suffering this condition) refers to someone who speaks slander.

What is the connection to leadership and strategy? Functionally, any team may face a situation where a team member speaks badly about another team member. Interestingly, there are two forms of this act. The first – lashon hara – is a statement based on fact and is truthful. The other form – motsi shem ra – or slander is untrue remarks. While It seems obvious that a slanderous remark will negatively impact teamwork, one might ask, how can speaking the truth be evil or harmful to the team?

At it’s core, evil speech has one last aspect to it that helps answer this question. Evil speech is not intended to improve, correct, or realign the team. They are spoken for the purpose of hurting another person with not positive aim or purpose.

Both evil speech and slander will, therefore, negatively impact the level of trust in a team and will more often than not lead to great conflict. According to Patrick Lecioni, an absence of trust and fear of conflict are core issues detrimental to team cohesion and teamwork. The foundation of trust is essential. The impact of evil speech or slander on a team cannot be understated.

And there are several lessons we learn about how to deal with the impact of evil speech and slander in this week’s Parsha. First, it is essential to examine the situation in-depth. The priests who are to make the decision if someone has leprosy cannot make a decision based on a casual glance. They need to take time to really look into the situation and discover the depth of the problem. This is true for any leader who is faced with a team member who is possibly speaking badly of another.

It is not enough to find out if the person’s statement is fact. One needs to understand the purpose behind it. Was it made with the intent to build trust and hopefully bring other team members into alignment with team goals? Or was it made with the purpose of hurting another? Even if the statement was truthful, how did the way the person spoke impact the team’s level of trust and their ability to deal with conflict?

So, we need to remember that, in our search for understanding there are different aspects and influences that impact how team members speak – to each other, about each other, and with the leadership. And this is integral to the negative impact of lashon hara.

Lashon hara creates a lack of faith in the intentions of the team members and a feeling that personal vulnerabilities will be attacked or disregarded. It makes it difficult for the full exchange of ideas necessary for reliable progress towards team goals.

This can lead to a fear of conflict that makes team meetings a place where people are wary of sharing since they might be attacked or feel threatened by a team member or the team leader. They are uncomfortable with, even afraid of, the adversarial dynamic of the team.

According to the Rabbis, evil speech is worse than the three cardinal sins because it kills three people – the one who speaks it, the one about whom it is spoken, and the one who hears it. When one team member speaks about another team member without the intent of improving the team’s relations, the ability to work together, and build trust, they are sacrificing everyone for their own ego and personal purposes.

So, what can the leadership do when they find that someone has been negatively impacting the team? According to the Parsha, the first action must be to quarantine the individual and remove them from the group.

According to the Parsha, this quarantine process has stages to it. First a week during which the priest or leader takes time to let the situation become clear. To gather the necessary information and see how things develop once the person is away from the group. Then, an examination of the individual to determine the situation still exists. If it does, then another separation period. And then the opportunity to rectify the situation as much as possible – given that the statements are considered so detrimental – with a clear understanding that things can never “go back the way they were…” (if they were ever good).

Why this process, including an opportunity for reconciliation? Because there may still be good in the person and to remove them without trying to improve the situation can lead to even less trust and greater fear of conflict. If the knee jerk reaction is to fire the person, without examining why the person said what they said and the underlying factors addressed by the statement, then the level of fear rises and the team’s cohesion drops.

So, first there is a separation. The level of separation depends on the nature of the team and the person in question. Where possible, it is best to create both physical and emotional separation. This might include asking them to take a few days off for vacation, for instance, or assigning them a different task for a while. During this time, we find out the facts of the matter.

Once we have the facts, we can then take time to talk to the person who made the statement. In doing so, we should try to understand why the person said what they said. We should try to determine if it was really lashon hara or slander or if the statement was made with positive intent but was simply done poorly.

Based on this information, the leadership then needs to decide if there should be a longer separation period to allow the person to cool off and perhaps seek reconciliation. If it seems like there is a real desire to rectify the situation, then there is hope that the person will help to improve the overall trust and reduce the fear of conflict in the team. If not, then more drastic measures may need to be taken.

What’s more, how the leadership response to this situation will significantly impact the team’s cohesion. If they maintain an objective attitude over the two week period, actively recognize how team member vulnerabilities were abused, and host productive conversations open to conflicting opinions, then they will be well on their way to reintroducing the perpetrator into the team.

More importantly, if the leadership has positively impacted the team dynamic over those two weeks, then the team members should be able to give the necessary feedback to the leadership about the re-introduction of the person who spoke lashon hara into their unit. They should be able to express their feelings regarding the level of trust. They should be able to describe the difference in their meetings and overall group dynamic – including their ability to have productive conversations allow for the necessary engagement and comprehension that improves and encourages commitment.

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