Don't let e-mail become e-fail - SmartBlog on Leadership 10.13.2014

“I was discussing the use of email and how impersonal it can be; how people will now email someone across the room rather than go and talk to them.” ~ Margaret J. Wheatley, writer and management consultant

If there was one area where I got hit hard at the beginning of my tenure as school leader, it was communication. The first complaint related to my style, which was seen as being too impersonal. I was heavily involved with my BlackBerry, texting and e-mailing regularly (even in meetings and while sitting in on classroom observations) to reach out or respond to various constituents. Though my objectives were lofty (I wanted to as readily accessible and responsive as possible), I was seen by some as being too digitized and distracted. This was, in part, because my predecessor rarely e-mailed. Nor did he text much or own a smartphone.

We all know the reasons that we type so many of our correspondences instead of write them down on a piece of paper. It’s often faster, it’s neater, and it can easily be saved and categorized for future reference without paper-sifting and clutter. Electronic communications can be shared far and wide and allow us to reach out and reply when it works for us, not having to be concerned as much with the other’s schedule and readiness to communicate.

Despite the many benefits of e-communication, it can also presents some meaningful downsides. These include:

  1. Misinterpretation. So much of the way that we normally share information and ideas is based on nonverbal communication. Inflections, hand gestures, facial tone, body positioning and the like say so much about how each party is receiving and responding to each other, as well as their passion for the information and ideas being shared. Without hearing a voice or seeing nonverbal cues, people struggle to properly discern the intended meaning, tone, value and emphasis.

A study by Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago sought to determine how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. The results of their study was that not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but recipients also overrate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

  1. Impersonal touch. No matter how thoughtfully an email is crafted, its digital nature makes it feel distant and impersonal. You simply cannot compare the feel of an e-mail with that of a face-to-face chat or a phone call.

  2. Raising the temperature. For most of us, distance makes it feel safer to “yell” or to be critical. We can more easily muster up the gumption to criticize when we are typing words on our personal keyboards than when we have to look someone in the eye and share our feelings. Furthermore, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.

  3. You can’t get it back. The quick nature of e-mail makes it easy to forget that our words actually matter and can really come back to bite us. (I suggest that you never send any e-mail with potentially negative implications without first showing it to one or two trusted colleagues). Not only must we worry about how our message will be processed “in the moment,” but there is a chance that it will be forwarded or printed for others to see as well

  4. Keeping your distance. Perhaps worst of all, e-mail, IM and other e-communiqués maintain distance between colleagues, sometimes even when only a wall or cubicle separate them physically. It’s often easier to fire off a response than to get up and share a few words. You may also want to not disturb your busy co-workers, especially if they are in another conversation or on the phone. While all of that is laudable, it’s important to not fall into the habit of remaining distant. Personal rapport keeps relationships strong, even in the face of conflict.

As our jobs involve working with and getting things done with people, we have to be able to build healthy relationships. This requires a healthy dose of ongoing, in person interactions, to get to know each other in real terms and how we each tick.

How to use feedback to your advantage - SmartBlog on Education 10.10.2014

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. – Bill Gates

As a teacher, you will certainly be the recipient of some negative feedback, solicited or otherwise. The comments may focus in on your teaching style, how well you communicate, whether a child likes you, etc. Even if the remark was delivered with constructive intent, you may resent the experience and develop a negative view of a parent, child or administrator.

It is important to remember that there is nothing to be gained from harboring negative thoughts. Almost every form of criticism can teach us something powerful about ourselves. The next time that someone approaches you with some unwanted feedback consider doing the following:

  1. Listen well. Hear them out without interruption. Mirror back what you heard for clarification. If there is something that you disagree with, hold it until the end. This way you validate them and open further lines of communication. It’s always best for the concern to come directly to you rather than to others.
  2. Respond carefully. Try to avoid sounding defensive. Leave your ego to the side and accept warranted concerns as well as viable advice. If you are unsure about the validity of feedback or what to do with it, ask for time to respond. Make sure to get back to the other party in a timely fashion and with a real game plan (see below). Ask for feedback about the plan.
  3. Thank them. Let them know that you appreciate the fact that they brought this matter to you and didn’t go around you. They easily could have; it would have been less risky and more comfortable. Let them know that you appreciate this growth opportunity that they have given you.
  4. Seek more feedback. Chances are that others also have opinions about the matter at hand. Seek out people whose opinion you trust and try to gauge the broader truth. Just how widespread is this concern?
  5. Do something. This may be the hardest part. No one likes to change, especially if we already have a plan in place and are well along in its execution. Seek to identify, alone or with a trusted confidant or coach, a set of actions that can help you grow as a lead. Then make sure to get back with the concerned party about what you have decided so that they feel validated and also do not add more grist to the mill.

We all want to hear that we’re doing well. Feedback is the breakfast of champions and positive comments can really put wind behind our sails. But no one wants to be an emperor without clothes, or, worse yet, a dethroned emperor. Whether the feedback that you receive was solicited or not, be sure to make good use of it, so that you can lead an inspired and engaged team forward.

The Official Holiday Of Jewish History - The Jewish Press 10.7.2014

You shall dwell in booths for seven days…. So that your [future] generations will know that I caused the people of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God – Leviticus 23:42-43

When you hear the term “the official [car, airline, soft drink] of [the New York Yankees, FIFA World Cup, Vail Resorts],” do you ever wonder what that means?

Does it mean a team is so enamored with a particular camera manufacturer, for example, that it only uses its products to take official pictures? Does it suggest a federation is so pleased with one airline’s service that it does all its business through that carrier? That was what I first thought when I heard the term many years ago.

Over time, I came to view such monikers as endorsements purchased like any other advertisement; the “official” designation is meant to add status and distinguish the product from the pack (at the price of a small fortune, no doubt).

An “official” sponsorship is simply a business partnership between an organization and a product, in which the manufacturer hopes its formal association with the adored entity will elevate its status in the eyes of consumers and lead to more sales.

Of course, such labeling is misleading, at least for consumers with the naiveté I had as an eight year old. The term, if it is to be used at all (is does sound kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?), should express a deep connection and a special bond that goes beyond financial considerations.

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Of all the Jewish holidays, I would say Sukkoth is far and away the least appreciated.

We value the High Holidays for the veneration and awe they inspire, for the opportunity to reconnect with our King and repent for past indiscretions.

We easily relate to the common themes of Chanukah and Purim: appreciation for divine deliverance from the throes of annihilation, whether physical or spiritual.

Passover's popularity stems from a similar redemption, not to mention the dramatic saga of an arrogant and tyrannical Egyptian nation receiving its collective comeuppance from the God of a beleaguered slave nation.

On Shavuoth, we conjure up the awesome image of Sinai, which culminated with the receipt of an invaluable gift that we continue to cherish some 3,300 years later.

In contrast, Sukkoth is the result of none of these singular, supernatural miracles or periods of open salvation, nor does it specifically focus us on strengthening our relationship with our Maker.

Simply, it serves to remind us of a wonderful period in Jewish history when our people enjoyed God’s continued protection and sustenance. To commemorate that experience, we are commanded to build booths, or sukkahs, of our own, and make it our primary abode for an entire week.

A deeper look, however, reveals a different picture. There was far more to this desert experience than the simple issue of transitory housing and daily provisions. Most notable was the Jewish people’s subsistence for forty years with no natural sources of food or water. For more than fourteen thousand consecutive days, man (manna) descended on the transitory Jewish camp, supplying our people with their daily rations. During that same period the Hebrew nation was also able to rely on the continued availability of fresh water from the well of Miriam, which provided for all its drinking needs.

Other basic life necessities, such as clothing and shelter, were also attended to without any effort from the people. For the entire period, the Jews had no need for new apparel as their clothing did not wear out. It also expanded as people grew. Nor did their shoes require replacement. Shelter was provided by each family’s personal sukkah, together with the external protection offered by the clouds of glory, which surrounded the entire Jewish camp.

As impressive as this all sounds, it still does not resonate with us in quite the same way as do the themes of the other special events in the Jewish calendar. Perhaps the reason for that is that we really do not appreciate what it is that God did for us during those years. The Torah does not spell out the true extent of the miracle – that a nation numbering approximately three million, approximately the size of many large modern municipalities, did not have to go shopping for food or clothing or worry about shelter for two whole generations.

The fact that the people were able to focus their energies entirely on spiritual needs, becoming the dor de’ah (generation of superlative scholarship and spiritual greatness), is certainly also deserving of our deep gratitude.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his masterpiece Horeb (pp.84-90), explains that each of the festivals represents a different aspect in the development of the Jews.

Passover represents the physical birth of our nation; for the first time, after centuries of servitude, we were able to begin developing as an independent people following our long-awaited Exodus.

In contrast, Sukkoth symbolizes the physical survival of the Jewish people. It was not sufficient for God to guide us out of Egypt, even with all the miracles He performed. In order for our salvation to be complete, God would need to continue to watch over us and provide for us, for the next forty years and beyond, so that we would have the wherewithal to achieve the lofty task He designated for us.

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In many ways, Sukkoth is a microcosm of the Jewish experience. Any true student of our history is well aware of its miraculous, providential character. We understand that the endless challenges that have confronted us in the four millennia since Abraham’s recognition of a singular divine entity – including slavery, harassment, attack, repeated exile and relocation, persecution and murder – should have spelled the end of our nation already at an early stage. But they have not.

Our nation, which has not been able to lay claim to such basic national “essentials” as a powerful military and a strong economy for more than a relatively small portion of our collective existence, was by no means a viable candidate for four thousand years of survival – let alone growth, success, and completely disproportional influence on the international landscape.

The fact that we have survived at all – never mind that we have done so while amassing so many accomplishments along the way – is a true indication that our history has been the beneficiary of a unique, divine oversight that has worked against all odds to ensure our total success and deliverance.

That is why I think of Sukkoth as the “official holiday of Jewish history.”

Many gentiles have expressed awareness and appreciation of the uniqueness of our survival. Literary icons such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain penned poetic tributes to acknowledge it.

The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He was the first to produce the Visions of God. He has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself. [Tolstoy, “What is a Jew?” Jewish World, London, 1908]

If statistics are right, the Jews constitute 1% of the human race. It suggests a nebulous, dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought to be hardly heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk…. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? [Twain, “Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899]

Based on the “rules” of history the Jewish people should have been destroyed many times over or, at the very least, absorbed into other nations. How is it that we have managed to defy this trend? What is it that ensures our ability to continue on this incredible odyssey?

The answer is that our survival is in no way contingent upon our physical and numerical strength. Had it been so, we surely would have vanished from the world long ago.

Close to 350 years ago King Louis XIV of France asked the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal to give him proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered, “The Jews, your Majesty, the Jews.”

We are “an Eternal Nation” (Isaiah 44:7). Our survival has been directly linked to our covenant with God and our commitment to Him and His Torah. Such commitment is the sole guarantor of our national survival. In the words of the Talmud, “The nation that is tired out by intensive Torah study will not be delivered into the hands of her oppressor” (Sanhedrin 94b).

Of course, our survival is not simply a matter of defying the odds. Our continued presence and influence have allowed us to teach and exemplify Hashem’s prescribed religious and moral code to others. He charged us to remind other nations of His active presence in this world, and of our collective need to follow His will. The nation that grew out of Avraham’s personal quest has impacted the way in which the world approaches fundamental matters such as understanding God, spirituality, the human condition, and life itself.

The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews. [Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, pp. 240-241]

In the process of surviving and sharing a set of eternal values with other nations, we also transmitted a powerful construct, one that presents God as the Overseer and Influencer of history. This approach adds an entirely new dimension to the study of history, seeing it as a controlled progression leading to a specific destination.

Our history is part of our ultimate destiny. History provides us with a road map in our quest for eternity, and the tools with which to uncover God’s goals for mankind.

This idea is also incredibly empowering. We know that we are involved in a pursuit and that we play an active role in reaching our destination, However, this concept also demands much of us. The duty to achieve its mission lies squarely on our collective shoulders.

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As we enter our sukkahs this year, let us take a moment to reflect on the true symbolic meaning of the simple structure that surrounds us. Let us value not only the open miracles that have come to frame Jewish history but also the steady, understated aspects of our national chronicles. Use the reflective time we possess during the next week to deeply contemplate the true extent of God’s continuous care and concern for our people, both during our time in the desert and beyond. In so doing, we will come to the same stark realization achieved by Pascal, who saw Jewish survival as a historical anomaly and the key proof of God’s existence and involvement in this world:

[The Jewish people] are not only of remarkable antiquity but have also lasted for an exceptionally long time…. For whereas the people of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out…. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold…. My encounter with this people amazes me.

Wishing all a joyous, meaningful holiday filled with the security and contentment that comes from looking up at the sky and appreciating the true Source of our protection.