The Value of Intermediaries

 

I am the CEO of a pretty flat organization; I like information to flow freely so that we avoid the issues that happen when everyone lies to everyone above or below them in order to “manage expectations” and look good. I hate that corporations systemically encourage that kind of “finessing” in order for a person to succeed. Isn’t it better to directly link people, to reduce the chances of translation errors mucking everything up in the layers between the line worker and the CEO?

Well, yes. And, no. After all, most conversations are about gaining information and assessing. They are about bouncing ideas off of other people to see whether they make sense or not. And the “big picture” guy may not actually be the right person to speak to the employee who just wants a steady paycheck and no hassle. It helps to have someone in the middle.

That role is not for everyone, of course. The person in the middle has to be tolerant and thoughtful, providing a buffer between the incompatible layers of the organization. That person must be a superb listener, but also highly discrete. Deeply negative comments – in either direction – can poison a relationship, a corporate or community culture.  So the person in the middle must, above all, never lose their cool. If they do, they lose the trust of everyone, and their usefulness comes to an end.

We realized that this is precisely how it works between G-d and the people in the wilderness. G-d almost never speaks directly to the people. Instead, He talks to Moses, and sometimes also to Aaron. Most of the time, G-d is giving instructions, ways for the people to interact with each other and with their creator.

But sometimes G-d actually loses his temper. He repeatedly threatens to destroy the Jewish people outright! And when He gets angry, it is Moshe’s job to absorb G-d’s anger, to defuse it, and above all, to not repeat it to the people below him. Moshe is the man in the middle. It is not an easy job, of course. But it is his job nonetheless: G-d vents at Moshe, and Moshe provides feedback to G-d and the people, at the same time protecting the people from direct exposure to the divine voice.

And it worked. At least most of the time – up until Moses stops functioning as the go-between, and loses his temper.

Set the scene: Miriam dies, and there is no water. The people complain, and Moses and Aaron, at a loss, asks G-d what to do: G-d tells Moses to speak to the rock and produce water. Here’s what happens next:

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

G-d immediately responds:

G-d said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

What is the connection to G-d’s sanctity, His holiness? I think the answer is plain: Moses took the frustration that both he and G-d had had over several decades with the people, and he finally blew up. Moses communicates the anger downward. And losing your cool never contributes to the holiness, the sanctity, of a relationship.

The anger that we feel may need to be expressed; we may need to get it out, to talk it over, perhaps even to entertain the possibility of changing our mind. Sharing our frustration is a tool for management, a way to bounce our ideas and emotions off of someone before we commit it to action.  But we have to be very careful about our choice of sounding board. There is an enormous value in not saying what one thinks!

Indeed, the specific word Moses uses, which is translated as “rebels,” is itself symbolically very significant in the Torah. The word is mara, which means bitterness, the kind of bitterness that comes from suspicion of disloyalty in a relationship. Esau’s choice of wives makes his mother mara because she doubts whether her son will remain connected to G-d. The Jewish people are tested with mara water after leaving Egypt, to judge whether they turned to worship Egyptian gods while they were in exile. The wife suspected of adultery drinks mara as a test of her fidelity. Mara is all about the corrosive doubts and mistrust that can destroy a relationship.

That Moses uses this specific word is thus freighted with meaning: the word is always used to acknowledge a wedge in a relationship, a gap that may never be closed. So calling the Jewish people mara is like a husband or a wife using the word “divorce.” Words like these, once spoken, can change the nature of a relationship forever more.

So perhaps it is the use of this word, above and beyond Moses losing his temper, that helps explain why Moses is told he cannot bring the people into the Promised Land. The Land is all about a permanent and tight relationship between G-d and His people. So anyone who casts doubt on the fidelity of the bond between G-d and man cannot be the same person whose job it is to introduce the Jewish people into the Land of Israel.

[This was an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter production]

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  1. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    This could form the basis for an article in the Harvard Business Review.

    • #1
  2. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Clavius (View Comment):

    This could form the basis for an article in the Harvard Business Review.

    Yeah, but you’d have to wrap it in two things:

    1. The Present State of the Question about Torah-based management theory.
    2. Something trendy.

    • #2
  3. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    This could form the basis for an article in the Harvard Business Review.

    Yeah, but you’d have to wrap it in two things:

    1. The Present State of the Question about Torah-based management theory.
    2. Something trendy.

    Well, of course, as trendy and boring defines the HBR.

    • #3
  4. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm.  Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah?  So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love.  Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product.  Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer.  Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    • #4
  5. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    BDB (View Comment):

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm. Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah? So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love. Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product. Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer. Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    So we deny orthodoxy and work with our colleagues to do the best we can.

    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    • #5
  6. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Clavius (View Comment):
    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    “Agile.”

    They used to just call that “Adam Smith.” Or “Von Mises.” Or “Daoism” or “Mencius.” Or “subsidiarity.”

    • #6
  7. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):
    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    “Agile.”

    They used to just call that “Adam Smith.” Or “Von Mises.” Or “Daoism” or “Mencius.” Or “subsidiarity.”

    I think perhaps we are talking of different concepts.

    • #7
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    BDB (View Comment):

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm. Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah? So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love. Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product. Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer. Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    Engineers need:

    1. a facility
    2. equipment
    3. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.
    • #8
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):
    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    “Agile.”

    They used to just call that “Adam Smith.” Or “Von Mises.” Or “Daoism” or “Mencius.” Or “subsidiarity.”

    I think perhaps we are talking of different concepts.

    Is the “Agile” movement not saying that people doing the work–and not all the various layers of management–know how to do it best?

    • #9
  10. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Percival (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm. Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah? So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love. Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product. Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer. Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    Engineers need:

    1. a facility
    2. equipment
    3. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.

    Well, and a proper goal.  You must be engineering to do something.

    Which reminds me of a story from an older petroleum engineer who was now working for an environmental remediation company.  He said that if the engineers had known that leakage in a refinery was a problem, they could have designed it out.  But loss of product at that stage of production had basically no cost.  Only later did they learn that the costs of those leaks was way  higher than they thought.

    • #10
  11. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):
    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    “Agile.”

    They used to just call that “Adam Smith.” Or “Von Mises.” Or “Daoism” or “Mencius.” Or “subsidiarity.”

    I think perhaps we are talking of different concepts.

    Is the “Agile” movement not saying that people doing the work–and not all the various layers of management–know how to do it best?

    Yes.  Management is only there to remove blockers from the people doing the work.

    • #11
  12. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm. Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah? So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love. Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product. Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer. Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    Engineers need:

    1. a facility
    2. equipment
    3. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.

    Well, and a proper goal. You must be engineering to do something.

    Which reminds me of a story from an older petroleum engineer who was now working for an environmental remediation company. He said that if the engineers had known that leakage in a refinery was a problem, they could have designed it out. But loss of product at that stage of production had basically no cost. Only later did they learn that the costs of those leaks was way higher than they thought.

    A goal? Why don’t you conjure up funding and a schedule while you’re at it?

    • #12
  13. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Percival (View Comment):

    1. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.

    I am management. And I have witnessed, far too many times, what happens when engineers lack management:  Endless rabbit holes in doomed attempts to try to eliminate all risk, resulting in a zero completion rate.

    • #13
  14. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    iWe (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    1. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.

    I am management. And I have witnessed, far too many times, what happens when engineers lack management: Endless rabbit holes in doomed attempts to try to eliminate all risk, resulting in a zero completion rate.

    In one of the essays in The Mythical Man Month, the author talks about making a $70 million mistake as leader of the IBM OS/360 project.  He let the engineers start building things before the specifications were done.  Lots of rabbit holes to unwind when the real build started.

    • #14
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    iWe (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    1. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.

    I am management. And I have witnessed, far too many times, what happens when engineers lack management: Endless rabbit holes in doomed attempts to try to eliminate all risk, resulting in a zero completion rate.

    Good management obtains the requisites and runs interference on bad management, who schedule progress meetings that interfere with progress. Progress does need to be tracked, but not at the cost of making any.

    • #15
  16. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Clavius (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm. Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah? So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love. Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product. Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer. Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    So we deny orthodoxy and work with our colleagues to do the best we can.

    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    Agile is when the hippie programmers fire the management, growing software on little community plots like ANTIFA in CHOP.  The end-users and the programmers collude to extract money from the organization while failing to ensure that the organization’s goals are represented through design and approval processes, because engineering and accountability are for squares, man.

    • #16
  17. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Clavius (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    1. crayons, coloring books, and Play-Doh to keep management entertained while work is being done.

    I am management. And I have witnessed, far too many times, what happens when engineers lack management: Endless rabbit holes in doomed attempts to try to eliminate all risk, resulting in a zero completion rate.

    In one of the essays in The Mythical Man Month, the author talks about making a $70 million mistake as leader of the IBM OS/360 project. He let the engineers start building things before the specifications were done. Lots of rabbit holes to unwind when the real build started.

    He had discovered Agile ahead of his time!

    • #17
  18. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    BDB (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    Certainly, the Almighty is not in the business of preparing his subordinates to take his role at the firm, or at any other firm. Empower your people to go and they stay; force your people to stay and they go, yeah? So maybe this parable is not appropriate to illustrate the value of hierarchies in the secular world.

    Hippies think all we need is love. Engineers think all we need is a technically superior product. Agile programmers think all they need is “stories” from the customer. Then everybody gets fired because the actual needs of the customer were not met.

    So we deny orthodoxy and work with our colleagues to do the best we can.

    For me, the best part of the “Agile” movement was to recognize that the people doing the work know how to do it best.

    Agile is when the hippie programmers fire the management, growing software on little community plots like ANTIFA in CHOP. The end-users and the programmers collude to extract money from the organization while failing to ensure that the organization’s goals are represented through design and approval processes, because engineering and accountability are for squares, man.

    Agile, development through contant sprints of panic while checking todo stories.   

    • #18
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