Rabbi Ariel Tal
Changing a Company's Culture with Modesty
Companies and organizations all want to build a winning culture to ensure success. There are many ways to create a successful culture, but there are few methods that can effect change in a negative culture and turn it around. One of those methods is through implementing modesty in the workplace. This may seem unconnected at first glance, but it has a lasting and powerful effect in the long term.
First, let’s define modesty. Modesty in Hebrew is “Tzniyut”, which literally means to cover up. The source for being modest is in the Prophet Micha(Micha 6:8)
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ “
It has been told to you, O man, what is good, And what HaShem requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk modestly with your G-d.
Modesty is first and foremost an attribute that we are instructed to aspire to internally. The manifestation of modesty is in how we behave, conduct our business and also dress. The Torah is filled with examples of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs acting modestly, to various degrees. Possibly the most extreme, is when Ya’akov marries Leah, thinking she is Rachel (After being deceived by Lavan, who switched his two daughters on Rachel’s wedding night with Ya’akov), and in the morning discovers that she is Leah and not Rachel. Other examples of a lesser degree are when Rivka first encounters Yitzchak and covers herself with a scarf and falls off the camel she is riding on.
Modesty can be used as a tool to change people’s mindset, create a culture of respect and elevate the level of how employees see themselves in their company. Take for example the case of the NBA in 2004. The commissioner at the time, the late David Stern z”l, was faced with a league that had a negative reputation. The player culture was heavenly influenced by the rap and hip-hop culture of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Many of the athletes were involved in crime or drugs, and the reputation of the NBA was declining. Then in 2004, there was an event that brought all of these troubles to a head - the Malice in the Palace (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Malice_at_the_Palace). During a game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons there was an all out brawl between the teams in an infamous game that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. David Stern in response decided that a radical culture change was needed. The league desperately needed to reshape its image for the long term success of the NBA. The method of culture change was a dress code. David Stern required all NBA employees to wear collared shirts to games and forbid wearing long chains or any jewerly that resembled hip-hop culture. Initially there was a tremendous amount of pushback from the players, but eventually the players learned to embrace the new style of dress and even made fashion statements from their new-found love for suits, collared shirts and dress pants. The results were astounding and almost immediate. The NBA quickly pivoted from an image of “punks” and “thugs” to an image of players that had an international draw, and a “cool” factor that resonated with young fans in North America and around the world.
David Stern understood that the key for changing a culture was through a dress code. Dress to impress, and you will learn to respect yourself, the game and others. Modesty isn’t simply about covering up our epidermis, it is about treating ourselves with the respect we deserve. We all dress up when it comes to occasions that are important to us, whether it be a Simcha, wedding, special anniversary, a graduation, invitation to Parliament or other special events. Modesty is a tool that is so basic and foundational in Judaism, it is one of the three basic things that Hashem asks of us, according to Micha.
Another element of modesty is to focus on the value we bring and not have to be the centre of attention. My mentor, Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, once told our group in my Amiel Training course about a story when he was the Rabbi of the Beth Israel Shul in Halifax, Canada. He realised towards the end of his four year tenure as their Rabbi that the Bima should be in the centre of the Shul rather than the front so that more of the congregation would be able to hear the Chazzan and Torah reading. He pitched the idea to the Board of Directors, and after much debate (as there tends to be in Jewish communities over these things), the Board decided to adopt the idea. The Board of Directors took full credit for the idea of moving the Bima from the front of the Shul to the centre. Rabbi Grunstein initially stunned at the lack of recognition, quickly shifted his mindset to modesty. He told us that he told the Board member who took credit for the idea “What a wonderful idea you came up with!” and never emphasized the fact that it was his initiative after all. Taking the credit wasn’t important, the important thing was that the idea was implemented and the Bima was moved to the Centre of the Shul. That is the value of modesty.
Whether it’s changing a company’s culture, creating special moments for ourselves, or focusing on the value and not the credit, modesty is definitely one of the foundational attributes of Judaism that set us up for success.