The golden rule is overrated

2012

Most people reading this are familiar with "The Golden Rule". Some form of it exists in almost every civilization and culture. In its essence it says "do unto others as you want them to do to you". In general that is very good advice. But if you're the leader of a remote team, it has a glaring weakness and can often land you in trouble.

I was at a barbecue over the weekend and got talking to someone about the trouble they were having with their project team. (Yes, I probably should have changed the topic but I have received a stiff spousal lecture on boundaries and it's-the-weekend-knock-it-off).

The problem seemed to be that people weren't forthcoming with information, people didn't proactively talk to each other and he didn't always receive good information in a timely manner.

I've known this fellow for a while, and had a pretty good idea what at least one source of the problem was. See if you can pick up the problem:

  • He had spent years as an individual contributor and knew the job as well or better than anyone on his team
  • He is a very quiet, introverted person
  • He takes his ability to work very independently as a badge of honor
  • He knows when he needs help and is pretty assertive about asking for it and doesn't take no for an answer very well (hence our having the discussion on a very pleasant Sunday afternoon)

Because he's a firm believer that you do unto others what you want them to do to you, he treats his employees the way he wants to be treated – namely:

  • He assumes they know their jobs as well as he does so he doesn't regularly check work or ask if people need help
  • Because he wants to be "left alone to do the work" and not "micro-managed" he doesn't have constant, regular contact with people, and often uses email rather than phone or webcam tools
  • He often assumes that people want to hear from him as often as he'd want to hear from his own boss (which isn't very darned often)
  • He frequently acts as the conduit for information between team members rather than encourage people to reach out to each other. More accurately, he assumes this is happening and is a little shocked that it is not.
  • The most telling thing is he told me "you don't have any way of knowing there's a problem until the deadline gets missed or something goes way off the rails".

The key point here is that doing unto others (managing them way he'd like to be managed) is fine for him and those who work like he does, but can often be counterproductive for those who need more human contact, aren't as confident in their work or don't know who to reach out to for challenges.

In other words, not everyone likes to work the same way you do, and if you don't adjust to each other, there's the possibility of real long-term communication problems over time. But how do you know how people like to work?

There are a couple of things you can do.

Ask them. Really, don't assume how often people want you to check in or how often they need to hear from you. Everyone has a preference, ask them what they want and don't be shy about telling them how you like to work. Both parties may have to give a little.

Ask open ended questions. Especially in the early stages when people don't fully trust each other, a closed-ended question like "will you make the deadline?" or "how's it going?" is likely to get a mono-syllabic (and slightly misleading) answer. Instead, try asking "what is happening that could prevent us from making the deadline?" or "what could we do better to help you?".

Actively discover each other's work preferences. Very often, when people understand how someone else likes to work, they are happy to make adjustments and things improve quickly.

There are many tools out to help us discover how we like to work, and how we can work together as teams. Among the easiest to implement and understand are tools and training that use DISC, Insights, or 16 Types (also known as a Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI)

When we manage people the way we want to be managed, we may be complying with the golden rule, but not getting 14-carat results.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.

Older Comments

Hi, Wayne, Thanks for this interesting article! May I offer a little different assessment of the situation? In my opinion, it's not the Golden Rule that has a glaring weakness. Rather, your friend at the barbecue seems to lack a bit of self-awareness of himself as a manager and of his own management skills.

You said, 'When we manage people the way we want to be managed, we may be complying with the golden rule, but not getting 14-carat results.' Your friend is managing his employees based on the way he himself prefers to work. If he truly applied the Golden Rule, he would manage each employee differently, based on how that employee likes to work.

It's a subtle difference, but, in my mind, points out that self-awareness is the issue that needs addressing, not the Golden Rule. Still, a very interesting and well-written article.

Thanks!!

Linda Leekley embracingcivility.com