The Haggadah – the traditional text read by Jews on the eve of Passover – speaks of “Four Sons” who are actually four stereotypes of people: The wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.
Each of the four sons is characterized by a typical saying, and the Haggadah suggests a corresponding commentary. In fact, many generations of scholars have commentated about these four sons, mainly offering religious or moral lessons, but I believe that there is another lesson we can learn from the story which can help us work better as teams within startups and organizations in general.
The wise people are clearly important. We all want clever people on our teams and rely on them be the innovators, the problem solvers and the overall driving force.
The wicked team members are less popular. We don’t like people who always have something negative to say, but we forget that it’s also extremely useful to have a devil’s advocate in our midst, pointing out potential issues in advance that can prevent a lot of problems and failures in the future. But at the same time, we wouldn’t want to have a team that consists only of devil’s advocates, and this is why the Haggadah explains that the wicked son would not have deserved to be freed from Egyptian slavery. When he is part of a community, a wicked-son type can be tolerated and even be useful, but an entire team of naysayers will only get so far before progress screeches to a halt.
The simple son innocently asks “what is this?” This innocent ignorance forces us to explain what seems obvious to all the wise people who have participated in the project so far, which can be a little annoying. We feel that we’re wasting our time explaining familiar issues. But are they really so clear?
Asking simple questions from time to time can prove to be a healthy habit that challenges us to validate what we ‘think’ we know. Sometimes we are so confident that we are right about something that a question that seems silly can actually reveal a potential fault in our thinking, forcing us to realize that we’re not as “right” as we think we are. And sometimes it’s the simple people (more ignorant than we are about a particular topic) who are best at pointing this out.
The fourth son does not know what questions to ask, so the Haggadah recommends: “You must initiate him”. When you have young or novice team members, they are often too shy to participate in the conversation. They feel that they don’t even know enough to know what they should be asking, so if we want them to develop and contribute, we need to create a supportive atmosphere for them.
If the strong team members take over and express their authoritative views at the beginning of each discussion, seldom would the newcomers dare to voice their opinions, which means we’d lose both their insights and their future growth. The team leaders should give them the opportunity to speak first, be tolerant of what they have to say, and help them build their confidence and knowledge.
So what the story of the Four Sons shows us (on many wonderful levels) is that diversity can be powerful if utilized wisely. When all of the “sons” merge their different traits, they can all benefit from working together as a diverse group of individuals who complement each other as part of a unified team.