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What is Wrong with the Golden Rule?

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

This blog post is dedicated to Kevin Hughes. Kevin is an alumni of Arcadia University. Every semester, Kevin visits my Study of Self and Teams class and students are treated to an hour of fun and inspiration. Kevin, who is in Aviation Security for Amazon Air, has been doing this for me for over eight years now. I am so grateful. The first time I invited Kevin to come to class, I knew him a little, but not well, so I wasn’t quite sure what we were in for, but I knew it was going to be good. I had admired what I knew of his leadership style. Within 15 minutes, a student asked him a question about the way that he leads, and he said something like (and I am not quoting because I don’t remember his exact language), I don’t believe in the Golden Rule. And, then he let this sink in for a minute. I am sure we were all thinking, who doesn’t believe in the Golden Rule – “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you”? It is such an accepted maxim of kindness and goodness. But, then he said, don’t treat people the way you want to be treated. Treat them the way THEY want to be treated! It was brilliant. When it comes to teamwork (and certainly other places, as well), if you really want a connected team where everyone is supporting one another to be their best selves, you have to go beyond the Golden Rule.

My husband hates to be teased. I love it. Some people need constant acknowledgement to feel motivated. Others hate the attention. When some people mess up, they need someone driving them hard. Others need to be consoled. When my husband is sad, he needs a hug. I prefer my favorite chai tea, and, in fact, a hug would annoy me. When some people are mad they need time alone, others need someone to be willing to talk it out with them.

Living by the Golden Rule should be relatively easy. Do what you would like, but to other people. It doesn’t require a ton of imagination, intuition, or empathy. It does require energy and that you care about other people though, which is a really good start. If we want really successful teams where both the people involved and the product are fully centered, we need to treat others the way they want to be treated. This requires really knowing other people, spending conscious time being observant and reflective, which isn’t something that is often emphasized in our work environments. You can only get the best out of your teammates when you understand them. As humans we all yearn to be understood, and that doesn’t stop when we walk through the office door. When we are understood, we feel freer to be our authentic selves. It takes a lot less energy to be authentic than it does to be someone else. The energy saved can go into productivity. When you are supported for who you are, motivation rises, confidence builds, and we feel emboldened to take risks with less fear of the consequences of failing, The thing about this rule, let’s call it the empathy rule, is that you will get it wrong some time. Sometimes you will leave someone alone when they wanted to be pushed, ask the “wrong” question, fail to notice someone’s need. This is OK. There is no such thing as the perfectly empathetic teammate. Empathy is a muscle that, with training, can learn to react with more agility. It is also a muscle that can get overused and needs a rest from time to time. Regardless, the time spent trying to create teams working under the “empathy rule” will pay off in greater team motivation and outputs. It feels good to walk into a workplace or team environment where the people are actively trying to support you in the way you want to be supported. Bottom line – the empathy rule, rules!

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