Grading the Golden Rule

The most valuable lessons I’ve learned about people have come from watching my children grow up. From birth there were great physical similarities in our three sons. Looking back at childhood pictures it can sometimes be difficult to tell which one I’m looking at. I seek details from the context of the picture to make a better guess as to which child I’m seeing. As similar as their physical appearances were, their personalities differed widely, again from early days. These humans that came from the same parents and grew up in a similar environment may share physical characteristics but behave differently and have independent interests. We can extend the lesson from our children to others we interact with. Even though we may look or live similarly, our personalities, hopes, dreams, motivations, and perspectives are vastly different.

As a result, we’re taught from early ages to be tolerant of others. We should respect our differences. Perhaps, we recall being introduced to the Golden Rule? It is a common way we’re encouraged to be considerate of others. The Golden Rule teaches us to treat others the way you would like others to treat you. It has been a part of human history for thousands of years. From pre-biblical days in Egypt and in Asia with Confucius, through to current religious texts, the Golden Rule has stood the test of time. Its presence across millenia and cultures suggests the value of the Golden Rule to helping us improve our relations with each other. In fact, the rule is at the heart of so many contemporary religions that in 1993 the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a group of 143 different faiths, proclaimed it the common principle for religions.

Considering our actions against the lens of the Golden Rule can be a helpful step to understanding that we are not alone in the world. Our opinion and perspective is just one of many. No matter what we’re doing we are likely to encounter and interact with others. We need to be considerate of them to ensure our relations go as smoothly as possible. The Golden Rule serves as a first step to encourage an external focus. A purpose it serves is to illuminate the idea that the world isn’t just about us, it involves others. Unfortunately, its limitation is that we should be using our frame of reference to evaluate and manage interactions with others. It assumes our perspective or approach is the right one to lead with when engaging with others.

This flaw can result in the Golden Rule being more of a cruel tool than a shiny jewel. A festering frustration when working with and communicating with others can be doing so from our personal perspective. We believe we’re treating others the way we would like to be treated. We think we’re acting thoughtfully and respectfully. We’re communicating with others based on how we see and understand the world. Embedded in the idea of treating others the way we would like to be treated is the idea of reciprocity. Our driver may be that we’re treating others the way we want to be treated with not just the hope but the expectation that they’ll respond favorably and treat us the same way in return. We expect that they will treat us the way we want to be treated. When they don’t, conflicts follow.

Imagine you’ve just boarded a plane headed for a destination where you’ll be holidaying with several of your best friends. You’re meeting your friends there and you haven’t seen them or been on a plane in over two years. You are very much looking forward to the trip and experience. You’re exuding enthusiasm and want to talk about nothing other than your travel plans. You’ve put on your seatbelt not because the captain has said so but because you won’t be able to sit still otherwise. All you want is for others to talk to you so that you can share your excitement. Your seatmate sits besides you. Thinking of the Golden Rule you decide to treat them the way you would like to be treated and you begin to pepper them with questions about their travel. However, your seatmate is traveling for business. They have recently received a promotion at work and are headed to their company’s head office to give a big presentation for the board of directors. They were late getting to the airport and are flustered as a result. All they want is to sit down, quietly catch their breath, and walk through their impending presentation in their minds eye. They wish that others around them on the plane will treat them the way they want to be treated and leave them alone. Will your enthusiastic questions be appreciated by your neighbor? Applying the Golden Rule with the best of intentions is likely to leave each of you disappointed. When we treat others the way we want to be treated, we may create more problems than we fix.

Feedback Bias is another example where the tendency to turn to the idea of the Golden Rule creates problems. Our highest value tends to be an area of strength in our own lives. We focus our own efforts on the areas of our lives that are most important to us. Where we are in a position to offer feedback to others, we tend to offer feedback based on our assessment of a subject. If we’re providing feedback around something that we value and have a strength at, we will provide feedback relative to our standards on the area. Our standards will likely be much higher and our scrutiny more ruthless in these areas than it would be for those that don’t value this behavior to the same extent we do. We will be acting with the best of intentions. We’ll be bringing focused feedback based on the sharp insight we have to the subject. However, our feedback is likely to come across as harsh and overbearing to recipients that aren’t on the same interest and wavelength as us on the subject. We will be assuming that they value as deeply what we do and will want to improve their performance to make it a strength like it is with us. This disconnect between our value and the feedback offered and the need for the other person to value what we value creates conflict. Our feedback isn’t always welcome. If we’re doing this as a manager or boss, the implicit message we’re giving others with this approach is “for you to excel, you have to be good at what I’m good at.” This simply isn’t true. What a manager needs to be good at and what their staff need to be good at are two independent things. It’s the manager’s job to offer feedback based on what’s required for the person receiving the feedback and their experience with the position. Adopting the Golden Rule doesn’t serve that outcome.

Maria MacLachlan offers a more applicable interpretation of the Golden Rule in Think Humanism where she writes, “Trying to live according to the Golden Rule means trying to empathize with other people, including those who may be very different from us. Empathy is at the root of kindness, compassion, understanding and respect—qualities that we all appreciate being shown, whoever we are, whatever we think and wherever we come from.” MacLachlan’s definition views the Golden Rule as moving beyond our personal perspective to empathy. Empathy is the essential element of connection. Connection is the heart of relationships.

In an earlier article we talked about different personality types. One type of personality test mentioned sorts us into 16 different categories of character. This means that whenever two of us interact 1 of 256 possible combinations of character are coming together. The chances that we’re the same type are much less than 1%. As in our travel example, the probability of our seatmate being the same as us is small. If we’re treating others like they’re us, both they and us are likely to be disappointed more than 99% of the time. Instead of yelling louder insisting on being heard, it may be more productive if we step back, say less, and listen more. This is the message at the heart of books like Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. Chapman suggests we each seek to receive love in one of five ways. Our typical go to in terms of giving love is offering it in the same way we would like to receive it just like our bosses with their feedback. He guides us to learn the cues others offer to learn the language that resonates with them. It’s less about understanding what is important to us and more about listening intently to understand the sentiment that speaks to the person in which you’re interested. The first step to being heard is listening to learn the language that resonates with someone else. What language do they speak?

This applies not just to love but all communication. Successful sales and leadership is built around this same idea. Expanding our empathy allows us to extend our influence. Valerie Kaur, a documentary filmmaker, endorses the lessons offered by Chapman noting, “The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters.” Look, listen, and learn where are they at? What do they see? Get curious about their understanding. In the corporate world, authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton in their book Leading with Gratitude introduce us to Britt Berrett who was president of a hospital in Dallas. As a leader, he made it a practice for himself and all managers in their organization to exit their offices and enter the lives of their colleagues for an hour a day. Gostick and Elton write that Berrett tasked his fellow leaders with connecting with their teammates for that hour daily, “asking how they could help, if they could remove any barriers to success, and looking for opportunities to express gratitude. Berrett said that dedicated hour of focus on employees brought his staff and management closer together and facilitated real improvements, including a 30 percent increase in employee engagement scores.”

The Crazy Canucks is a name that Europeans gave to Canadian downhill ski racers in the mid 70s. A rag tag team of Canadians made their way to try to break into Alpine Skiing, a sport dominated by Europeans on their own turf. The Canadians had less than a low budget, they were closer to no budget. Where they were scarce on resources they were rich with courage. They raced with abandon and took risks the technically proficient Europeans weren’t used to seeing. This style slowly brought them some results and won over some fans. Our Canucks may have been crazy but they weren’t foolish. They were smart enough to realize that their ability to raise funds to support their dreams was dependent upon winning the hearts of the diehard fans of the sport in Europe. Before they could get Canadians back home to care, they needed to make their presence felt in Europe. As their tactics brought some initial positive results, the Crazy Canucks recognized that they needed to adapt themselves to become adopted sons of skiing to the European fans. French, German, and Italian were traditional languages of the sport. To be able to communicate with fans, media, and even equipment manufacturers, these athletes took time to learn the language of the locals. They realized who could or would butter their bread and ensured they didn’t treat fans or the media as an afterthought. They made themselves available. They routinely stayed until the mountains upon which they raced were dark and empty signing autographs for anyone interested. A separate benefit the Canadians offered fans of the sport is that they became the loveable underdogs. Fans would root for their hometown heroes first, but if their hero wasn’t going to win, the second choice for fans across European countries became the Crazy Canucks.

None of this was easy or natural for the Crazy Canucks to do. They would have preferred to focus their energies on their sport. But, by adapting to the approaches of their fan base, the Crazy Canucks became household names and were not just adopted but embraced by Europeans. They learned what Europeans wanted, gave it to them, and in the process became desirable themselves. These athletes had the sophistication to use empathy like author Neil Gaiman suggests when he writes, “empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

Author Geoff Colvin in Humans are Underrated writes about the competition for jobs that is occurring as a result of automation and A.I. The workforce skills that were once admired are now being taken over by automation in many fields. The ability to do calculations and routine work quietly, accurately, and quickly used to be prized. Now machines are capable of dwarfing our human abilities in these areas. Colvin notes, “As a result, the meaning of great performance has changed. It used to be that you had to be good at being machinelike. Now, increasingly, you have to be good at being a person. Great performance requires us to be intensely human beings.” As we march forward, our ability to stand out will be not because of being the best widget producer or paper shuffler but as someone best able to connect. Empathy is becoming the secret sauce of success. It is the root of relationships and something that takes real work. It is not something machines have any ability to manage. We may not be able to compete by out-computing, but we can excel by developing empathy. Develop presence, listening, and leaning into learning about others in order to endear yourself and your services to them.

Entrepreneur Colin Dowling, in an interview with Hacker News, offers seven tips to get better at sales. Of these seven sales secrets, four are built around the importance of empathy. Dowling suggests “People buy aspirin always. They buy vitamins only occasionally and at unpredictable times. Sell aspirin.” We don’t always do what we should do, but we are always looking for a way to reduce our pain points. Great sales people are good at learning what poses problems for others and finding a fix for them. Seth Godin, in a recent blog post encourages us, “Don’t make something that you would buy. Make something that they would buy.” If we can feel their pain, we can help them gain. Empathy is about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Walk longer than a mile. Wear out their soles until you can see what’s in their soul. Do you know what they are going through? Do you know where they are trying to go? Can you meet them where they are and help them get where they want to go? These are the things your prospects want to know. Extending the Golden Rule to encourage empathy to help us try to understand the world from someone else’s point of view will help us strengthen relationships and better serve our customers.

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