Occupy your life.

My dad didn't like going to rallies. Having escaped one attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, his worst nightmare was a repeat attempt, and he was not going to provoke trouble with photos of the family demonstrating - no matter how legally and peacefully.

As far as communication style went - quiet, quiet, quiet.

I am half-Satmar (an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect), though not raised in Williamsburg, and one of our basic tenets was that "other people can make noise, but not us." Especially not women (see forthcoming memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox). We learned to keep our mouths shut and not step outside and not go public with any sort of comment or criticism. The attitude was and is, "We take care of our own; if you don't like it, leave."

That solution was pretty well determined from the start. Like other people my childhood was a confusing hybrid of ultra-Orthodoxy, modern Orthodoxy, and plain old pop culture American teen-dom. So I didn't leave, but I left Orthodoxy.

In response they call people like me "off the derech," meaning that I have lost my way. But the funny thing is, I only found my way when I left. And started to think for myself. To occupy my own life.

Communication has been core to my journey. The ability to talk freely, to share ideas, to debate and discuss and arrive at a place more reasoned than where you started - is part of the beauty of life. To live in a system where your thoughts are predetermined by others is to suffer from a crime against your very humanity.

The concept of free choice, or free will, is a value basic to Judaism. If we have no choice (and by extension no information with which to make a good choice) then what do our choices mean? Yet strangely it is a norm for the religious to try to force others to be just like them.

Traditionally Torah and science - faith and the world - have gone hand-in-hand. Yet over the past few decades there has been a trend toward extremism among the religious, fewer and fewer people can squeeze under the limbo bar of observance. Which is why the vast majority of Jews, both in Israel (73%) and the U.S. (90%), are not considered "Orthodox" or observant. And even within Orthodoxy, there are enough people who don't believe anymore ("heretics") that rabbinic leadership is taking time out to alternately pity and condemn them.

If the vast majority of people in any social system can't engage with or benefit from the system, if they don't understand it and don't believe in it, then there is something wrong with the system and not the people. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing even showed, in his book "Knots," that sick social systems produce sick people.

The Orthodox author of "The Impostors Among Us" - which rather unsympathetically chronicles the secret unbelievers who pass as Orthodox - writes of the "dark descent" of  nonbelievers who still act like they're religious. Of course this is interpreted as a consequence of the personal failings of the individual: a combination of "emotional issues," "the Internet," and not wanting to disrupt a convenient and stable life. It couldn't possibly be about the unbelievable stringency of the life; its inscrutability to even the most dedicated want-to-believer; and the witnessing of immoral acts, sometimes committed in the name of religion (!). Like slamming young boys' heads around in the name of teaching obedience.

A lot of Jewish people find solace in Buddhism, though statistics on this vary. I like the Dalai Lama's books. But in the end they're not a substitute for an ongoing conversation about the existence of God and what is wanted of us as human beings (see "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" and insightful review).

I've never heard the term "Occupy Judaism" used but I don't mind being the one to invent it: We all have the right to explore our own religion, or lack of it. (Check out father-son movie "The Way" with Martin Sheen & Emilio Estevez.) The Huffington Post recently ran a great article called "It's the Spirituality, Stupid!" chronicling the disconnect people feel between church and spirituality and the attempt to bring back that inner spark.

Fortunately there is a growing recognition in the observant Jewish community of the damage that extremism has done and the parallel need to re-occupy our faith - to take it back from the extremists. I like the outreach efforts of Aish.com and their funky videos. There are important social messages in the music of The Groggers (feminism), Da Scribe (unity), Matisyahu (spirituality is universal), and the Maccabeats (in this Matisyahu song, nonviolence but generally you can be Orthodox and part of the larger community too).

It's been my personal experience that people are people, for better or for worse. My upbringing left me with a deep-rooted sense that religion is important. That we have no right to walk away, but rather have to engage in an ongoing, inner and outer dialogue about what we think is right. It is a critical part of that journey to occupy your own life - to occupy your own faith. This is a beautiful gift that God has given me, and I value it.

Elephant In The Room: What To Do

There is a certain expression that comes across a person's face when
they get a question leading to an elephant in the room. A certain body
language. A tone of voice.

If you watch closely, that expression and the follow-on reaction looks
and sounds roughly like this:

1. The body freezes, particularly shoulders and head.

2. The eyeballs dart sideways or down.

3. There is a pause as the person being questioned buys time to decide
how to answer and to settle themselves down to look comfortable again.

4. There is a comment about how the questioner is "blunt" (or perhaps
a laugh, as if to say, "very good," or the opposite, anger at their
chutzpah).

5. There is an answer that is either honest (usually coupled with a
laugh and/or compliment at the acuity of the question) or evasive
(usually coupled with "I need to find out more information," or "That
is not my department," or you get a vague answer, or part of an
answer), or misleading, or a lie.

If you are a communicator it is your job to get to the truth. Usually
when there is little information available, or you have to piece
together bits of information from here and there. A critical part of
gathering that information is asking questions, and not in a slavishly
flattering way but in a way that gets you to an answer.

Inevitably questions lead to elephants. So you have to know what to
do. How to recognize them, how to handle them, and most importantly
that you have choices.

Typically communicators have the following kinds of reactions to the
elephant, once they discover it:

1. Glee - as in "gotcha," a combination of relief at having gotten
somewhere; satisfaction that they were asking the right questions;
knowing that they are now equipped to move forward with a
communication plan.

2. Dread - as in "oh s**t, now what do I do?" because the elephant is
difficult to deal with.

3. Denial - as in "I don't see any elephants," because they want to
CYA and not have trouble in their lives.

None of these emotions are productive. In fact they get in the way.

The first one is egotistical - "You see I'm so great!" - and it
distracts you from your focus, which should be on serving the
customer.

The second and third go hand in hand - they bias you toward not seeing
the truth. If you don't see the truth you can't communicate, because
people can smell a lie and will immediately disregard what you are
saying.

So let's say you've discovered an elephant and conquered your
emotions. What next?

The important thing to do is to recognize that you have choices.
Essentially they boil down to:

1. Ignore the elephant - if the timing is bad, if there is a lack of
support for moving forward to confront it, if it wouldn't serve the
customer.

2. Discuss the elephant directly with the customer and explore options
for responding to it.

3. Discuss the elephant, but not with the customer, and decide to work
around it.

Every person and every organization has elephants, because life is
messy. Sorry, that's just how it is.

Without elephants, you wouldn't need communicators.

The important thing for professionals, as we confront these
situations, is not to be surprised by elephants but rather to look at
them as part of the natural habitat. And then to calmly work to
address them - or not.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Why most internal communication is irrelevant

In the hierarchy of corporate talking, internal communication has about the same ring as a colonoscopy.

And it’s pretty similar too. Both are invasive, designed to uncover deadly cancerous growths that can lead to the organism’s (the organization’s) death.

Also, in both cases, knowing that you have a disease can help you get better. But it is also painful to admit you may be sick. And if you do have cancer, the horrible reality is that it may be too late to save your life.

Of course the deepest fear an executive has, in terms of “talking to the people,” is that they’ll learn of things “better left unsaid.” Things that then have to get dealt with, and once we start airing the problems who knows where that will lead.

Usually the attempt to avoid talking about real things involves sharing fluff. Why don’t we change that by changing the name of the field. How about organizational development? Because that gets us closer to what we are really trying to do.

Here is a story to illustrate my point. Let’s call it an anti-case study.

Way back when, in a certain organization, I was one of the people responsible for internal communication. It was my job to manage the employee news magazine. Our team did a lot of work to make it more appealing. One of those things was to make an electronic version of the print edition.

At the time I was infatuated with all things Amazon. As a brand, the revolutionary-ness of it had great appeal to me: They offer things from other vendors! They allow all kinds of ratings of the products! How do they make a dime?

Already in a previous job I had gotten in trouble for using the Amazon paradigm in the thought leadership publication I invented for them. Because I insisted on quoting other consultancies. There were those who thought that doing so would make us lose business. I stubbornly insisted that, just like Amazon, it would show that we were more secure. It was a controversial point of view and not everyone would have it.

In this job I could see that the newsletter would really do nothing online unless it had a value-add. Because people liked the glossy print edition. They could carry it around on travel, show their families what they did, etc. I made sure to blow the pictures up, way up because people really like to see themselves and their colleagues at work. And graphics grab your attention and make you read.

So what did we need with online? During the day people were working and didn’t have time to read this kind of off-hours stuff. So, working with the technical team, I figured out a way to make the online version feature an Amazon-style rating system. It was brilliant, I thought. It would be so engaging for people to rate the articles and so informative for us, to know what content was most valued by the users

My boss was horrified. Ab-so-lute-ly horrified. If she could have strung me up on a pole she would have.

Her worry was, basically, that we would p*** people off. And then we’d be shut down. Because the mission of our group was to “make people feel good” as well as to “provide useful information.”

By looking at the employee magazine as an “internal communications tool,” the rating system was a hard sell, because the word “communications” implies something glossy and appealing. Yet at the same time, the word "internal" implies something messy, complicated, not glossy. Like an internal medical exam.

However, if internal comm. were reframed as “organizational development” (which it really is, or ought to be) then a rating system for articles would make much more sense. Because then it’s about using communication to bring the organization together. Part of working together is airing, and then resolving, conflict productively.

If something we are saying just isn’t appealing to the workforce; if our style of doing business is unproductive; if there are problems lurking beneath the surface that get hidden when executives walk by; we need to know. Otherwise what’s the point of sending out all the happy missives?

Anyone can send an email describing the employee benefits package – that passes for “communication” too.

If we want to see internal communication grow and prosper the way it should as a profession, then perhaps we should give it a better name. Something more in tune with what it’s trying to achieve. To me, the field of OD is more appropriate for sponsoring an evolving conversation – one based on honesty, transparency, mutuality, and trust.

Nobody wants to know

Remember the good old days when it was a parents’ job to keep their emotions to themselves?

Today things have supposedly changed - it’s all about “being real.” But even with all of that, being too honest can puncture a kids’ sense of security and stability.

Though we may seem taller and grayer, adults are basically kids inside. And when we are confronted with the vulnerability of someone we count on to be stable, it scares us and we don’t want to know. Remember that episode, on “Sex and the City,” when Carrie’s beloved mentor at Vogue confronted her with his penchant for cross-dressing?

I was thinking about this while reading an online discussion about one vs. multiple identities: Is it our choice to be different people on different social networks? Or would we prefer to be known as an integrated, multifaceted person by all the people we deal with?

In the discussion it was fairly clear, as I also heard in a real-life forum, that most people want to preserve their distinct identities. They want to be one person at work, another with the family, maybe a third with the college buddies, etc. There are boundaries.

The sociologist who kicked off the discussion with her blog argued that we are always multiple selves and that drawing clear lines between one and the other is healthy.

But I was not so sure. While it is true that we play different roles in different settings, it is also true that living too “divided” a life can lead to not only role conflict but psychological distress.

Indeed, social media has made the “problem” of multiple selves more immediate. Rather than talking in a distinct way to different audiences, frequently we tend to record our utterances electronically as we “perform” in different settings.

So an executive writes a formal email, and then turns around and sends a casual Facebook message or a Tweet. All of this is fine until the outside world is confronted by very disparate communications coming from the same person. It becomes easy, then, to judge them; to conclude that they are a hypocrite.

Thus the Mark Zuckerberg credo that we are always, only, one person.

On the surface, in a social media world, it may seem like our audiences want us to tear down those walls. But in reality, I think, they really don’t want to see all that much. Maybe once in a while, a glimpse. Maybe they want the essential values, the basic voice, to be consistent. But after that, I think, too much information all at once is disconcerting, upsetting, annoying, and even boring – TMI.

Perhaps the issue has to do not with how you portray yourself but with how you think of yourself internally. The more integrated you are – the more you have embraced the various aspects of your identity – the more comfortable you are exercising control over your “portrayal” based on the unique situations you find yourself in.

The way I see it, every actor plays different roles during their careers. Life in social media times is no different. It’s OK to personalize your behavior depending on the forum. You wouldn’t wear flip-flops to a formal dinner, and you wouldn’t wear a suit to McDonald’s. But wherever you go, if you’re out in public, just remember there’s always someone to take a photo for Facebook.

Branding is not a moral enterprise

It's been in the gossip magazines that Kim Kardashian went to Saudi Arabia with her mom to - well, basically to make money by making burqas look pretty.

You may not care about Kim's personal or professional life but as an avid viewer of the reality show and a reader of gossip magazines, I just have to know. Plus it seems possible that Kim is headed for a nightmare divorce, possibly to be filmed as the sequel to the fairytale wedding.

In any case I noted the photos of Kim in the burka alongside the photos of Kim on the camel in the pink tunic.

It was a sharp contrast to the New York Times article a couple of weeks ago about domestic workers' abuse at the hands of their Saudi Arabian employers. One photo I can't get out of my head (in the print edition) shows an X-ray of a woman with nails driven into her skull.

Please know that I am not picking on Saudi Arabia here. Close your eyes and put your finger on a map. You will find that every nation commits human rights abuses and every nation also tries to portray itself as a great place to visit and invest in.

Marketers sometimes seem to feel guilty about plying so many unnecessary goods to unwitting buyers. Probably rightly so. Yesterday I was talking to someone who said she "just had" to have the Chase Sapphire card. I said, "What's so special about the card?" She said, "I don't know. It's just..." and I said "The blue?" She grinned a naughty grin, as if to say, "Well there really is no reason I like the Sapphire card more than any other - it's just stylish."

I remember hearing a speaker from Landor talk about developing the Sapphire card, and the blue, for the branding. It is a gorgeous card. I can see it. (Sorry, I can't find a link online to the case study.)

Is Sapphire the best value? Who knows and for my friend, who really cares? But for the marketer, sometimes we think about this stuff and care. And then we do pro bono work or talk about the importance of transparency.

So what I want to point out today is that branding is not a moral enterprise. And that you shouldn't confuse truth in advertising with morality.

Unlike socialism, capitalism is an amoral system. It's not about doing good. It's about making money.

Paradoxically however, socialists ultimately wind up abusing human rights in the name of "caretaking" dictators like Hugo Chavez. Whereas capitalism produces morality through a free-market system where vicious competition forces sellers to prove themselves to buyers. Often through transparency - by telling the truth about what they sell and how products are made.

Branding is the attempt to create an image of superior value. It stands or falls on how closely that image can stand up to inspection.

The motives of brand sellers are not moral, but financial.

But in the end this can produce more human rights than any socialist exhortation.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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