Why good leaders break the golden rule

Following the Golden Rule may seem like an essential tenant of successful leadership. However, there may be more to the story.

Why good leaders break the golden rule

Following the Golden Rule—treating others as you would like to be treated—may seem like an essential tenant of successful leadership. However, the Golden Rule may actually be holding you back from leading happy, engaged, high-performance teams.

As a keynote speaker for top private and public sector organizations, I often discuss the critical role of breaking the Golden Rule in building more positive and respectful workplaces. This advice elicits a mixed reaction from the audience, ranging from puzzled looks to harsh rebukes.

This is hardly surprising; the Golden Rule is accepted as a global truism, one of those seemingly unassailable beliefs that defy criticism. Ask anyone around the world about their core values, and it would likely sit at the very top of their lists. Most of us learned the Golden Rule as young children from our parents or teachers, deeply ingraining the concept in our psyches.

At first blush, the unwavering support for this idea makes sense. What could be kinder and more selfless than treating others the way I want to be treated? How better to engage with employees than by referencing my own experience? It seems so obvious. A no-brainer. Yet, when we step back and reflect on what it really means to live by the Golden Rule, in our personal and professional lives, its problematic premise becomes clear.

The Inconsiderate Partner

Take, for instance, a romantic relationship in which one person simply loves surprises (we’ll call him John) and the other person hates them (we’ll call her Jane). John decides to throw Jane a surprise birthday party, and it doesn’t turn out so well. Jane is furious. So, what does John do to atone for his mistake? He springs a last-minute vacation on his surprise-loathing partner. (After all, Jane probably just hasn’t been surprised in the right way yet.)

Unfortunately, John has ignored a fundamental fact: Jane hates surprises for a reason, and by deciding to surprise her anyway, he has blindly and willfully disregarded her interests and desires. Draw your own conclusions on how the second surprise panned out for poor John.

The Oblivious Gifter

Adam Grant, the youngest tenured professor in Wharton history and a top-rated TED speaker, shared a great research-inspired example of a Golden Rule faux pas in his first internationally acclaimed best-seller, Give and Take, which included a study on wedding gifts.

Think about the last time you attended a wedding. If you knew the couple well, you might not buy something listed in their gift registry, preferring instead to choose a more “meaningful,” “special,” or “personal” gift.

However, when the couples were asked which wedding gifts they were most satisfied with, those more “personal” or “special” gifts ranked at the bottom. In their minds, if the guests truly cared, they would have chosen a gift from the registry. Why? Because those IKEA pillows you spurned were on their carefully cultivated list and your magical, musical candle was not.

In my coaching practice, I have personally witnessed the impact this lack of perspective has on leadership outcomes.

The Misguided Motivator

An executive I once coached was perplexed by his team’s poor engagement ratings. He just couldn’t see what the problem was, proudly insisting that he always made a point to publicly celebrate their accomplishments. In his professional experience, there was no greater satisfaction than being brought up on stage and acknowledged in front of an audience.

Despite his good intentions, his approach to motivating and rewarding his employees did not have the desired impact. His team was very focused on the work and took tremendous satisfaction in delivering extraordinary value without public recognition. In their minds, being paraded out in front of the organization actually lessened the meaning and purpose of their work.

The Micromanager

Another executive coaching client of mine received pretty positive 360-feedback scores in her performance appraisal from her team but was devastated to be classified as a micromanager. As we sat down to make sense of the results, she described her management style to me. At that the beginning of each day, she dropped by to deliver assignments to her team, then checked in on their progress around lunchtime and again mid-afternoon.

When I asked what inspired this approach, she explained that she was emulating the management style of her previous boss, which she strongly believed helped to advance her own career. She was excited to provide this type of “support” to her team so they could reap the same benefits.

She had never shared this rationale with her staff because she thought her intentions were obvious. However, when I asked how someone who did not understand her true motivations might interpret her management style, she sat back in her chair and exclaimed, “Oh my God, I’m a micromanager.”

Again, failing to acknowledge the perspective of other people caused considerable frustration and disengagement, both for the executive and her team.

Platinum – the Essential Element

So, if the Golden Rule isn’t the guiding principle it’s cracked up to be, what is? The answer lies in practicing empathy in your interactions with others – or, as some describe it, following the Platinum Rule: treat other people the way they wish to be treated. Stop looking at the situation from your own perspective and view it through the eyes of others, this is at the heart of empathy.

Though a paradigm shift from gold to platinum may seem daunting at first, start by simply asking more questions of others. Connect with your team about their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and motivations. Let their answers guide you.

For example, when I challenged the misguided motivator to simply ask his team about their preferences, he learned they preferred personal, one-on-one discussions of his appreciation versus public acknowledgments of their successes. His employees also longed to interface with clients so they could witness firsthand the impact of their work. Adam Grant has also previously drawn attention to the power of organizational leaders “outsourcing inspiration,” allowing end users such as clients and customers to motivate and inspire employees by giving their work deeper meaning.

In the case of the micromanager, she went back and asked her team what type of support they needed from her. To her surprise, she received many different answers. One team member thought the current “check-ins” were great. Others felt a weekly one-on-one meeting would be the most helpful. A few more said sharing their progress and challenges during bi-weekly meetings was sufficient, and they liked knowing they could raise issues with her on an as-needed basis.

After making changes based on her team’s feedback, her engagement scores soared and her employees expressed sincere appreciation for the shift in leadership style. Though wary of the changes at first, this former micromanager stuck with it and was shocked at the drastic improvement to her team’s engagement and performance.

The Golden Rule is an alluring concept for leaders because it seems like a selfless, positive approach to human interaction that should motivate people across the board. Unfortunately, at its core, it is the ultimate act of selfishness, as it causes us to project our needs and views on to others, often leading to detrimental outcomes. As William Shatner recently quipped, “the ultimate act of hubris is to tell someone else how to live their life.”

Think twice before following the Golden Rule in your personal or professional interactions – it may actually have the exact opposite effect than what you intended. Instead, always treat other people the way they wish to be treated by honing your emotional intelligence and approaching leadership from a place of empathy.